Coming out of the closet

I’ve taken a lot of heat the last couple of months because I dared to say that the bodice ripper romance was a product of its time and thus needed to be considered for the time in which it was written. Is the forced seduction PC? No, and never was. It was a fantasy, a fantasy that, if the contemporary nonfiction literature at the time is to be believed (both anecdotal and academic), was common. Considering the number of those written and sold, I’d say it was a pretty popular one, all dressed up in period clothing and the mores that clothing represented.

Also lately, around the romance blogs, historical and contemporary romance/erotic romance with bodice-ripper elements have been ridiculed, maybe rightly, maybe not. But in a romance reading public that’s taking to male/male romance and BDSM romance, this abhorrence of the longest-running sexual fantasy in romance is bewildering to me. Women have their fantasies. Some of them involve the forced seduction. Is it PC? Absolutely not. Is it valid? Yes.

Genre romance has always thrived on the power imbalance between the male and female, but this has its caveats, and the caveats make up the majority of the fantasy:

1. The heroine is always clearly superior to any male in her milieu except for the hero, who is the only male strong enough to conquer her.

2. The heroine is always isolated from female companionship for many reasons, one of which is that she is superior to all other females and thus, the object of female derision/jealousy. If there is a female, she takes on a mentor/sister/mother/fairy godmother persona.

3. She’s already attracted to him and he gets her off.

4. The “asshole alpha”’s transformation into acceptable mate material depends on whether his eventual groveling is equivalent to his previous assholishness.

5. He better damn well grovel and do it right.

6. At the end of the book, the reader knows that while the heroine can go on and live without the hero, the hero cannot live without the heroine. He always winds up more dependent on the heroine’s love and presence than she is on his, turning the power imbalance 180 degrees.

7. It’s all about the groveling.

Other than the innumerable authors who write the six Harlequin Presents novels every month, I can’t really name any contemporary romance authors who write the “asshole alpha” except, perhaps Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and boy does she write good groveling, viz. Kiss an Angel, which is one of only five romances on my DIK list (and the only contemporary).

Lately, Anna Campbell and others have come back with the bodice ripper, but again, they write historical and I don’t think it does anybody any good to pretend that some of these characters are a century or two more enlightened than the people around them at the time.

The power imbalances in my own book have been pointed out to me with startling clarity, and I’ve been chewing on this for days, not because I disagree in the case of Knox and Justice (an homage to the Harlequin Presents line of books I cut my teeth on and my best crack at writing an anti-hero), but because I do disagree in the cases of Giselle and Bryce, and Sebastian and Eilis. I’m not going to go into why because that entails spoilers.

PU_hi_res_200What ultimately brings me to write this post, though, is because lately, despite my professed ambivalence (possibly distaste) for paranormal romance and urban fantasy, I’ve been reading a few books (that I liked!) that have led me to a conclusion:

The asshole alpha still lives and breathes, as assholish as he ever was. The bodice ripper hasn’t gone away. The forced seduction hasn’t lost its appeal.

It’s morphed.

Into demons, werebeasts, vampires, ghosts, ghouls, goblins, and things that go bump in the night. In many, many cases it’s further disguised as the (overused) “one true mate and nature has given us no choice” device.

Only now, because it’s dressed up in con clothes and otherworldly window decoration, it’s perfectly acceptable. Except . . . some of us don’t care for the window dressing.

I also made a statement a while back that a lot of Mormon authors write our basic tenets and philosophies and beliefs and religious history in science fiction and fantasy, where it’s almost or fully unrecognizable to non Mormons. I said that I thought it was cowardly. I was told by one author that his first instinct was to write science fiction/fantasy and that the incorporation of our doctrine, traditions, and culture was secondary. I believe that—for that author. I don’t believe it across the board.

Why does this happen? Perhaps because suddenly, one person’s fantasy/message is another person’s call to battle?

I don’t write that way. I can’t wrap the bodice ripper up in paranormal and urban fantasy paper and put a shibari bow on it because that doesn’t appeal to me, although the sex probably will. I can’t put a pretty dress on what is, to many readers, an ugly philosophy/belief system in science fiction and fantasy because that doesn’t appeal to me, although the philosophy will.

This is why I like erotica, because, by its very nature and reader expectations, it’s bald. It’s honest. It’s also why I did actually appreciate The Actor and the Housewife for one thing: It put our culture and beliefs and jargon out in the open honestly, naturally, with no apology or preaching.

I want it straight and I write it that way. I call it what it is because that appeals to me, the honesty of it, the setting of human-as-animal in a contemporary world where our baser wants and needs are not only taboo, but ignored as if they don’t exist. And likewise, where our spirituality/religious beliefs offend a whole lot of people, and short shrift is given to the struggle between the natural (human) man and the enlightened (human) one, who attempts to control himself and sometimes simply doesn’t.

I have no issue with control, losing it, struggling with it, conquering the natural man. After all, that’s why we’re here, right? To vanquish the natural man?

But I’m interested in the process.

And the groveling.

I don’t expect a non genre romance reader to get this, so the objections I’ve received have only made me think about the genre, think about why women read romance, the vast subgenres of romance, and why some women despise genre romance altogether.

Whatever universal truths are revealed in fiction, no matter how they’re portrayed, I don’t give a shit about vampires or demons trying to overcome their natures to be moral creatures because vampires and demons don’t exist.

I don’t give a shit about a being (possibly alien) who drives a spaceship for a living (or who has some fantastical adventure) who’s going through some vague spiritual struggle that Mormons can drill down to the most minute nuance, and might kinda look like Mormonism to anybody with a passing familiarity, because I can’t relate to that.

I can relate to asshole people whose feet are planted on earth, who don’t have regular contact with the boogeyman or aliens, who have no magic or fae blood, no superpowers, who strive and fall and fail and lose themselves in their baser natures, who want something better for themselves but may not know how to get it, who make bad choices and know it even while they’re doing it, who depend on other people or a religion or a deity or a philosophy to help “fix” them.

We all need fixed in one way or another, and there is always a power imbalance in a relationship. It shifts and it changes and it morphs and it takes time to level out as much as it’s ever going to. It’s a neverending process, and sometimes it seems like being on a hamster wheel.

How do I know this?

’Cause I’m an asshole and I strive and I fall and I fail and I lose myself in my baser nature, trying, always striving, for enlightenment. And because I need my husband to “fix” me, and I daresay he needs me to “fix” him, too.

And we both have to grovel.

But please, can we stop pretending the forced seduction romance, and the inherent power imbalance the male has over the female is gone? It’s not. It never will be. We like it too much, and, as a fantasy, it’s no less valid than the up-and-coming PC fantasies of male/male romance or BDSM romance in all its incarnations.

It’s just been driven into the closet.

22 thoughts on “Coming out of the closet

  1. Jessica

    “I also made a statement a while back that a lot of Mormon authors write our basic tenets and philosophies and beliefs and religious history in science fiction and fantasy, where it’s almost or fully unrecognizable to non Mormons. I said that I thought it was cowardly.”

    I think it is only “cowardly” if they hide the Mormon aspects to appeal to more readers, and even then, I’m not sure. Is that what you think is happening there, and is that why you think authors are writing paranormal romance, so they can secretly write acceptable alphhole heroes? This is not striking me as right, but I am not a writer, so what do I know? Maybe, in the Mormon case at least, writers write what they know, subconsciously?

    This is kind of funny. We used to say authors wrote romance with forced seduction so female readers could be comfortable getting off on the hot sex in the books without guilt, and could sympathize with heroines, who were “really good girls”. Now we are saying authors write paranormal so readers can be comfortable with forced seduction and can sympathize with heroes who are “really good guys”.

    Very interesting post. thank you!

  2. MoJo Post author

    Is that what you think is happening there, and is that why you think authors are writing paranormal romance, so they can secretly write acceptable alphhole heroes?

    Maybe not consciously. I don’t know The same patterns of behavior are exhibited as ever were in the 70s/80s romance.

    I don’t want to say that paranormal authors write paranormal for this reason. I don’t believe that. I think I’m trying to say that paranormal is POPULAR because in contemporary and historical, perhaps the asshole alpha is kinda scarce right now.

    Now we are saying authors write paranormal so readers can be comfortable with forced seduction and can sympathize with heroes who are “really good guys”.

    I think that’s an awesome summation. Because for some reason, it’s unbelievable (unacceptable?) for a woman to be a really good girl, without apology. And, worse, also be aware of her sensual nature, and have to struggle between deliberately keeping her virtue (if that’s what she wants to do) or deliberately giving into her sexuality–and facing whatever consequences she has to face.

    So now we have the heroine who’s aware of and unapologetic for and in charge of her sexuality, but who still might get turned on by the power struggle, knowing, WANTING to lose (at first)–and that’s what seems to be unacceptable.

    Maybe, in the Mormon case at least, writers write what they know, subconsciously?

    I could buy that, because writing is informed by the totality of one’s experience.

    I say this based on the fact that a disproportionate number of Mormon authors who write for the national market write SFF/YA, and I believe it’s because they then are free to write characters that conform to our “standards” of behavior without having to qualify the characters’ choice to do so.

  3. MoJo Post author

    And just a cover-my-ass thing: I’m not knocking paranormal or UF authors AT ALL. They write what they like, what they know, they build worlds, they’ve pushed and popularized the kick-ass heroine, and they do it well.

    I think that’s fantastic.

  4. The Franchise

    It’s rather understandable why this appeals to women in a literary sense.

    My wife likes feeling that in our relationship, too. When she is so attractive, so desirable that I *must* ignore everything else–how tired I am, what I need to do to prepare for teaching a lesson in church, what’s on TV, who I need to call back, etc.–she feels very confident in her sexuality. Of course, she doesn’t want that powerful a response from other men–but I suppose that’s the point in the romance novel as well; her power is enough to keep other men away, even though they want her.

    While I haven’t read much romance, the books I have read share a common problem: the heroine isn’t powerful. The story is written as if she is, but I ended up with the conclusion of “why her? He’s the greatest man ever, but other than a great rack, this girl is useless!” Admittedly, attractive breasts are quite nice, but more than just one woman qualify with that sort of standard. (Because I feel that way generally about romance novels, I thought your biggest success was writing women your male leads could believably respect.)

  5. Jettboy

    “I also made a statement a while back that a lot of Mormon authors write our basic tenets and philosophies and beliefs and religious history in science fiction and fantasy, where it’s almost or fully unrecognizable to non Mormons. I said that I thought it was cowardly.”

    I understand what you mean in the context of this post, but I have to ask if you have ever written a romance with contemporary Mormons in them? I also give “The Actor and the Housewife” some credit for actually having a Mormon housewife in a story without any apologies. I don’t agree that the friendship could have worked without serious complications that might have ended her marriage. As for Mormon theology, can there be a contemporary story that touches on that without the mythological structure of science fiction and fantasy? I can’t think of any religious tradition that is capable of that since religion is itself unprovable (and atheists would call that fantasy). You can incorporate religious people in contemporary settings, but including theology would automatically take on the resemblance of mythology at best. This I think is the reason you see so many Mormon science fiction and fantasy authors. If they want to explore more than the mortal ramifications of the theology they pretty much have to use genre literature.

    To be honest, if Mormons were placed in the romance genre that you seem to write I would imagine that at least one of them would be ex-communicated. That is, unless you write sort of an anti-erotic story where the heroin fights to control her passions until after the wedding. Could such a story even work in the genre? I don’t know. I’m not into the “hot” romance genre.

  6. Eugene

    One word: Spike. Spike’s alpha amorality makes his moral journey the most interesting in the series. In the Ai no Kusabi fantasy series I’ve been translating for Digital Manga, all of the characters are asshole alphas. Because this is yaoi BDSM, power imbalances are created because some are assholier than others.

    The Path of Dreams is my attempt to include erotic elements in a Mormon story that respects the Law of Chastity. I’m writing a sequel of sorts that cranks up the erotic and alpha quotients and still keeps one foot (toe) on the floor. Granted, this does require a fantasy element, but it’s mostly contemporary melodrama.

  7. MoJo Post author

    @Jettboy

    I understand what you mean in the context of this post, but I have to ask if you have ever written a romance with contemporary Mormons in them?

    Yep. The Proviso

    To be honest, if Mormons were placed in the romance genre that you seem to write I would imagine that at least one of them would be ex-communicated.

    Yep. Did that.

    I’ve also done a couple who have close ties with the church, respect it, have been greatly (to the good) influenced by it, and have affection for it, but are not members. Stay, release date November 27, 2009.

    I’m also writing a Mormon bishop and ex-prostitute story (that would be book 3) where I’m exploring the (to blatantly rip off some reporter referencing Twilight) the erotics of abstinence: Magdalene. Tentative release date is April 24, 2011.

    @Eugene

    One word: Spike. Spike’s alpha amorality makes his moral journey the most interesting in the series.

    YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES

    The Path of Dreams is my attempt to include erotic elements in a Mormon story that respects the Law of Chastity.

    I have that on my e-book reader, in the queue.

    contemporary melodrama

    I adore melodrama.

    @The Franchise

    (Because I feel that way generally about romance novels, I thought your biggest success was writing women your male leads could believably respect.)

    Thanks. :)

    she doesn’t want that powerful a response from other men

    I think that’s inevitable, no matter what, and I reject the idea that women are responsible for men’s eyeballs.

    –but I suppose that’s the point in the romance novel as well; her power is enough to keep other men away, even though they want her.

    Yeah, I think that’s a good way of looking at it.

    As for this:

    the books I have read share a common problem: the heroine isn’t powerful. The story is written as if she is, but I ended up with the conclusion of “why her? He’s the greatest man ever, but other than a great rack, this girl is useless!”

    There is a feeling amongst some romance reviewers/academics who study romance that very often, the heroine is written so as to be a placeholder for the reader. IOW, she’s as bland as she can be while retaining some of the elements of what the reader might like to be. I don’t want that response. I want heroines you like or hate or love or feel sorry for or even neutral about, but not a placeholder.

  8. MoJo Post author

    Now Dude is wondering what needs fixing, and isn’t so sure he wants to know.

    You fix me every day just by loving me. :)

  9. MoJo Post author

    By the way, if it seems that I am slow in commenting, it’s because (for some reason) I’m not getting my e-mails. Blast it.

  10. Penny Ash

    You realize of course you’ve described the classic standard romance plot progression with your caveats. Every romance has these in one form or another depending on the era they were written in. They’re in Pride and Prejudice as strongly as they are in the latest BDSM novel. Only in the BDSM book Lord Darcy is called Master.

    The society may change, people don’t.

    I’m feeling the urge to write a contemporary bodice ripper. Without the paranormal fantasy element.

  11. MoJo Post author

    @The Franchise

    (By the way, in case you didn’t know, Cinderella is my wife.)

    I figured that out right after I posted my answer to her on Th.’s blog.

    @PennyAsh

    You realize of course you’ve described the classic standard romance plot progression with your caveats.

    I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re absolutely right.

    I’m feeling the urge to write a contemporary bodice ripper. Without the paranormal fantasy element.

    Heh. Awesome!

  12. The Franchise

    The placeholder idea makes sense. My previous theory had been that the useless heroine was intended to help the reader feel superior to her, but this makes more sense.

    This is also why I disagree with those that don’t like having physical descriptions of characters. It’s okay if the author doesn’t describe them in great detail, but they are somebody.

  13. MoJo Post author

    I said this over on the “guilty pleasure” post, but another big school of thought in romance is that it’s hero-centric, meaning, the reader imagines herself with this awesome dude. I suppose that’s a sibling to the heroine-as-placeholder idea.

  14. Eva Gale

    “The asshole alpha still lives and breathes, as assholish as he ever was. The bodice ripper hasn’t gone away. The forced seduction hasn’t lost its appeal.”

    And they get to do it without birth control. Cause Vamps, weres, chimeras can’t carry human stds.

    So it’s all there-wrapped up in bat wings.

    And this?

    “You fix me every day just by loving me. ”

    Is why I write romance.

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