The core of genre romance

For every woman who’s made a fool of a man, there’s a woman who’s made a man of a fool. —Samuel Hoffman (near as I can tell)

I read this quote long, long ago, and I swear to high heaven it was in one book of Anne Rice’s vampire trilogy (maybe Queen of the Damned?).

It resonated with me then and it still does, and I finally figured out why.

This sentiment is the heart and soul of genre romance: What woman doesn’t like to think she has that much power in either direction?

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.

What 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.

I’m not going to waste my time.

My August reading list experiment is no more.

I read Where Serpents Sleep by C.S. Harris and found it a bit hollow, particularly the end, where the heroine, Hero (I’d find that funnier if I didn’t know it was a Shakes reference), is kind of…forgotten. Hello! She lost her virginity. A teensy bit of half of a resolution would have been nice to ease me into the next book in the series. Actually, (please mark your calendars) I didn’t think the token sex scene was at all necessary (nor was it in character for either of them) and for me, that scene was a WTF? It made me wonder if the editor made her insert the de-virginization scene. Because without more emotional preparation before or reflection after by either of the characters, it made it superfluous. It was like a question that didn’t get completely asked, much less answered.

I’m 100 pages into Tribute by Nora Roberts. It’s going back to the library tomorrow with the rest of the list.

I have no interest in any of these books and I wouldn’t have picked them up in the first place, and my hypothesis will thus officially remain a hypothesis because I’m so not interested in proving it.

I have to finish beta-reading for a friend (this is not a chore, believe me and plug: her debut novel, On These Silken Sheets, is out on September 8—go preorder right now!), I am caught up in Seabird of Sanematsu and Fight Club so I need to finish those, and I want to glom some Victoria Dahl.

And that’s just what I have on my READING plate.

The zeitgeist of a story

Romance novels are mocked all the time everywhere. That’s not news. What was surprising to me upon my reentry into reading and writing romance, which necessitated entering Romancelandia, the world of romance reader blogs, was that they’re also mocked by people who love romance novels.

Some books deserve it, but some that might seem to deserve it . . . don’t.

Those are books from the history of romance novels that are mocked for their fashions and specific song references and other tidbits of culture that date them and, quite often, the covers that were made for them at the time. In particular, very often the sweeping scope and larger-than-life characters and plots are mocked. The people doing the mocking, I find, are young and/or young to the romance genre.

I don’t know quite what they expect when they read a book from the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s that would rightfully be fodder for mockery if written now, but the fact of the matter is, they’re not meant to be timeless in every respect. If one puts oneself into the study of romance novels, to be intellectually honest, one must also be able to sift the culture of the time and how these novels work within that.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a host of “rape romances” that are routinely sneered at by younger romance readers and/or people young to romance reading. The device is that the hero is cruel, arrogant, and (as I saw in a comment about my favorite one, written in 1974) he “rapes her until she loves him.”

Sounds harsh now, right?

Let me put this in some context. In the early 1970s, a lady named Nancy Friday interviewed women on the subject of their sexual fantasies and published them in a couple of books: My Secret Garden (1973) and Forbidden Flowers (1975), just at the cusp of the “rape romance.” Without taking Friday’s scholarship into account, I find it interesting that many women’s fantasies at that time featured rape prominently. I also find it fascinating that these books were published nearly simultaneously with the early rape romances and thus, probably didn’t inform each other.

And then came the soap General Hospital in 1979, with Luke and Laura, which is, as far as I can tell, the most famous rape romance ever.

Mind, this definition of “rape” is not a legal one; it’s a highly stylized one in which it allows the female to retain her Good Girl status while still A) having sex and B) enjoying it because the hero is a different kind of rapist: One who is attractive, who is uncontrollably attracted to the heroine, and who gets her off after he’s made it possible for her to have an out, i.e., “I was raped.”

Why did she need an out? Because, at the time, a woman’s enjoyment of sex (especially outside of marriage) was still taboo.

(In The Proviso, one couple’s, uh, courtship [heh] is an homage to this era of genre romance.)

As an another aside, there is the shifting definition of “genre.” In the aforementioned 1970s and 1980s, many heroines typically had more than one lover throughout the course of her story, but ended happily with one. This would not happen in genre romance now unless it is a ménage à trois erotic romance.

Now, the heroine who has more than one lover during the course of a genre romance novel would not be meeting the expectations of the average genre romance reader, which is to say, sexual involvement between one man and one woman throughout the course of the book, with a happily ever after ending. (This does not speak to the fact that the male occasionally has other lovers, but in context, and with the understanding that that’s okay because a man has his needs. We haven’t come all that far, baby.)

In fact, in a Twitter conversation with (among others), @mcvane, @victoriajanssen, @redrobinreader, we decided that those romances would now be classified as women’s fiction. Naturally, our word is law.

I’m not sure why there’s this unwillingness to go along with the zeitgeist of the time in which the book was written, but instead to apply today’s standards of fashion or technology or pop culture as markers of timelessness. We don’t expect that of our historical novels, so why do we expect it of “contemporary” romances that cease to be “contemporary” the moment the galleys are finalized?

Me? I like reading the zeitgeist. I don’t miss it if it’s not there, but if it is, it’s a lagniappe for me. It gives me a feel for the time period and takes me back. Perhaps the difference is whether one is too young to be taken back or not. I don’t know.

However, in reading some earlier novels, I find this especially important because a lot of the plot devices realistically used then could not be used now because of advances in technology. If one can accept that it was 1979, and the heroine didn’t receive a letter that the hero had sent and he had no other way of contacting her or finding her to clear up a misunderstanding, one should also accept the blue eyeshadow and feathered hair.

I date my novels for a reason, which is to commit the zeitgeist of the moment in the mind of the reader, leaving no question as to its pop cultural references. In 10 years, no one can say, “That feels so dated.” They’ll have to say, “The author is very explicit about these events occurring between 2004 and 2009. If it feels dated, well, that’s because it is. It says so right in the chapter headings. Go with it.”

The expectation that one should be able to pick up a romance novel (or any other novel) from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and either not be reminded that that was when it was written, or not be offended by some of the themes in the novel borne of the time it was written, seems to me that we wish to either forget that part of our history or cover up the history. More likely, however, is that we may live (and read) in the moment and may be either unwilling or unable to reference the history of the time in which the novel was written.

It’s a shame, really, because a lot of stories’ richness and layering gets lost without the proper historical context.

Retreads: I rode this train for so long…why?

June 23, 2009

My blog’s been around long enough now, with enough posts, that nobody wants to go digging through what I had to say a buncha long time ago (centuries in blog time). I’m coming up short on content lately (heh, didja notice?), so I’m going to recycle some of this stuff because now people have been asking me questions I’ve answered in my earliest posts.

This [original article with comments are here] is from June 13, 2008:

I have a buncha novels on my hard drive that have been sitting around collecting dust since, oh, 1990 some time, I guess. In ’93 I wrote one that got me an agent, and another that year that got me a contract—before the publishing company was shut down (because, according to the rumor at the time [get this] it was making too much money and it had been created to take a loss for tax purposes) (remember Kismet? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?); one in ’95 that got me an early-Saturday-morning phone call from Harlequin to pleasepleaseplease overnight the manuscript; and a fourth novel in ’98 that got me a different agent.

In ’95 I wrote my senior thesis; since my major was creative writing and journalism, I wasn’t required to write a paper deconstructing anything. Instead, my assigned professor (a Latin professor, no less!) asked me to write 25 pages of a novel. When I came back a week later with 100 pages, polished, perfect, she switched gears and asked for me to write a paper describing my creative process. She was fascinated with how I’d done what I’d done.

However, that 100 pages was the basis for The Proviso and I knew I had something different, something that would probably never sell. I set out to continue the flow of the short story I had written the semester before. I had become fascinated with a throwaway character (Knox Hilliard) I’d created simply as a tool for the protagonist of the story (Leah Wincott) to complete the allegory. Knox is a bastard. He would never sell in genre romance and I knew that.

On the other hand, my four attempts at writing romance to spec failed to impress since the three that didn’t get picked up missed something somewhere. So between those four instances of “oh so close but yet so far away” and the impossibility of selling an anti-hero when anti-heroes were de trop, the whole thing got to me. I threw up my hands and said, “No more.” Then I woke up one morning last summer [2007] re-energized.

So today. Just now I’ve read two articles that have left me pursing my lips and thinking maybe it’s just as well I never grabbed the brass ring. As I’ve said before, technology caught up to me and got cheap enough to not break the bank, the atmosphere changed (and is still doing so as more authors get publishing savvy), and I’m older with enough DIY skills and a little money to do it right.

The first takes my breath away with regard to artistic integrity:

The Hamster Wheel

In an age when reading for pleasure is declining, book publishers increasingly are counting on their biggest moneymaking writers to crank out books at a rate of at least one a year, right on schedule, and sometimes faster than that.

It takes my breath away because I could probably do that . . . but why would I want to? And all that for…

Less than minimum wage.

I have no words.

As the one person (other than I) who reads this blog already knows, I come down firmly on the side of taking the risks and reaping the rewards. And at this stage of publishing’s evolution, why shouldn’t I?

I drank the Kool-Aid of being A Published Author when there were no other viable options, so I don’t feel my time was wasted at all. At the same time, I watched my author friends churn out three, four, five category romances a year to make a decent living and that I can’t do. I don’t have the discipline or talent to write within those specs and on that timetable.