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.

This book’s kinda giving me the willies.

And I’m only 50 pages in.

Right now I’m reading The Actor and the Housewife, and I just don’t quite know what to think. Here’s the blurb:

What if you were to meet the number-one person on your laminated list—you know, that list you joke about with your significant other about which five celebrities you’d be allowed to run off with if ever given the chance? And of course since it’ll never happen it doesn’t matter . . .

Mormon housewife Becky Jack is seven months pregnant with her fourth child when she meets celebrity hearththrob Felix Callahan. Twelve hours, one elevator ride, and one alcohol-free dinner later, something has happened . . . though nothing has happened.

It isn’t sexual. It isn’t even quite love. But a month later Felix shows up in Salt Lake City to visit and before they know what’s hit them, Felix and Becky are best friends. Really. Becky’s husband is pretty cool about it. Her children roll their eyes. Her neighbors gossip endlessly. But Felix and Becky have something special . . . something unusual, something completely impossible to sustain. Or is it?

A magical story, The Actor and the Housewife explores what could happen when your not-so-secret celebrity crush walks right into real life and changes everything.

This part is what gets me: “It isn’t sexual.”

My. Ass.

Now, look, Sister Hale. I realize that I shouldn’t be coming to this novel from the perspective of a romance reader, because it’s not a romance. (I know it’s not because the library cataloging block told me it isn’t. It says it’s “chick lit,” and library cataloging blocks don’t lie.) But I am coming to it from a romance reader’s perspective because it’s whispering naughty thing in romance’s ear at this point. Yet I don’t know a die-hard romance reader in the world who wouldn’t tear her hair out.

Becky Jack (the main character) is, thus far, what we romance readers would call TSTL.

Too Stupid To Live.

Also? Flirting *kofffallinginlovekoff* with someone while you’re happily married is a HUGE romance no-no.

I had to take a break from the gore of this woman’s squished IQ and blog it. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to finish the book, except . . .

I must get back to the trainwreck that she is. I should turn my eyes away. Look somewhere else. But I can’t.

Still alive!

I’m here, I promise!

Got some fairly big projects in the works, some related to publishing, some not, and I need to really concentrate on those. It’s a concession to my ADD, which likes the time to focus on a project, to tunnel right through it, and does not like to rotate through projects on a schedule. Honestly, I get more done that way.

Also, I’m working on my last piece in the cross-blog series David Nygren of The Urban Elitist and I are doing on monetizing fiction, then I need to concentrate on putting up some pieces for Publetariat.

I’m also working on the next book in the Dunham series, Stay, which is taking on proportions I didn’t plan for. Sometimes my imaginary friends are very persuasive, which is to say, they won’t leave me the hell alone. Stay is a little more genre romance-y than The Proviso, and a lot less heavy on the religion. I’m aiming to release it on Valentine’s Day, 2010.

Tune in tomorrow. Same Bat-channel, same Bat-time.

The problem of genre: “Grit Romance”?

Labels are terribly useful to the majority of human beings. I find them useful insofar as I understand the definition of the label used, although this is usually a 50/50 proposition for me. As a method of efficient inventory control and meeting customer expectations, genre labels simply can’t be beat. The publisher knows which buyer to go to and the bookseller knows where to shelve it.

question-mark-715902But lately, there’s been a lot of cross- and mis-labeling going on inside genre fiction, leading readers to scratch their heads and wonder, “This isn’t X. Why did they put it on X shelf?”

Science fiction with romantic elements or a science fiction romance or a romance with a science fiction backdrop?

Fantasy, ditto above permutations.

Paranormal, ditto above permutations.

Speculative fiction/steampunk/cyberpunk, ditto above permutations.

Suspense, ditto above permutations.

Erotic! and ditto above permutations.

Mystery, ditto above permutations.

Spy, ditto above permutations.

Whatever other genres I missed, ditto above permutations.

A reader may or may not be willing to go along with the story regardless what it is and where it takes them (that’s the kind of reader I am), but some buy books specifically on spine label, cover cues, and back blurb so that they can get exactly (or pretty close to it) what they want.

Today, some independent publishing friends and I have been discussing our books, about how disparate our stories are, how we view ourselves in completely different genres, and how our books all have one thing in common: They are not classifiable, except by “drama.” (Well, why can’t “drama” be its own genre? Or is it? I don’t see it used anywhere.) They’re all a mix, all dark and gritty, with romance and a happily-ever-after (the one and only real requirement to be considered romance).

I don’t know how to classify The Proviso. I never did. Drama? Yeah, plenty of that. Family saga? Check. Epic? Uh, most definitely, as it takes place over the course of 5 years. But epic what? I can’t think of a book I could compare it to. Healthy doses of religion and spirituality mixed in with money and explicit sex? What? What’s anybody supposed to do with that? It’s not LDS romance/literature/fiction (defined as anything that could be sold at Deseret Book/Seagull), although I could call it Mormon fiction if a criteria of “Mormon” is that a Mormon wrote it. I call it a romance because I see myself as a romance writer.

The editors at one publishing house liked The Proviso, passed it around to get a roundtable opinion, but ultimately rejected it. “We don’t know where to put it. The religion isn’t going to go over with our erotic romance readers and the explicit sex isn’t going to go over with our inspirational readers.” That was good to know.

I know that RJ Keller, whose Waiting for Spring, got the attention of several agents, was told that she would have to extensively revise her book to be commercially viable. Most egregiously, she’d have to cut out the drug references, except…the drugs is the keystone of her plot. Hello? She finds her book marketed on all the free sites as a romance, but she does not consider herself a romance author.

Kel pointed me in the direction of Lauri Shaw, whose book, Servicing the Pole (that title’s as ballsy as using The Bewbies for my cover), had a lot of interest, but would have required extensive changes in order for it to be considered commercial. This is from Ms. Shaw’s website:

However, when professionals who were interested in selling my work insisted I’d need to make drastic changes to Servicing the Pole to make it a commercial prospect, I had to ask myself if the end justified the means. After all, these people were able to guarantee me little to nothing on the front end.

I was told that the book was too dark. That I’d have better luck catching the reader’s fancy if I made the story into something upbeat. The suggestion I took the most issue with, though, was that I ought to transform Emily into a more ‘likeable’ character. To do so would have been to change virtually every theme in this story.

I’m proud of the story I’ve written. It’s a story I can stand behind.

Servicing the Pole also has a happily-ever-after (or at least a happily-for-now), but I don’t know how Ms. Shaw labels herself as a writer, as I have not spoken with her.

Note: Our books are all dark, gritty, nasty, twisted, with a happily-ever-after. That is what’s genre-busting about them.

You can call ’em drama or epics or family sagas, or whatever you want.

Kel calls ’em “gritty romance.”

Gritty romance.

I like it.

What happened to the epic novel?

Last month, a friend of mine who is reading The Proviso said to me (paraphrase), “You know, a publishing house editor would have made you cut some of this.” Beat. “But I don’t know what it could have been.” At 283,000 words, it’s actually right on track for a novel that chronicles the romances of 3 couples. It’s 94,333 words per romance. (No, I don’t know which couple gets more air time, nor does it matter.)

A couple of days ago I blithely typed, “I want to be the Tom Wolfe of genre romance” and suddenly, the light came on for a few people, one of whom said so in that thread. I had never thought of my writing goals in that light until I actually said it, and that is true. (That’s just blindingly arrogant of me, isn’t it?)

Anyway, I had the feeling there were only 3 readers (including me) around Romancelandia longing for the long, involved, complex romance. But a Dear Author thread about the shrinking word counts of some of Harlequin’s lines (this isn’t unusual) disabused me of the notion. More readers came out of the woodwork to express their dissatisfaction with the snacks that are the single-title romances (and we won’t go into category aka Harlequin romance). We want feasts!

But alas. There are none.

Th. made the argument in a provocative post that series writing is a different skill from single-novel writing, and perhaps that’s where the epic novel went: to series. That must be read in the proper order to get the whole story.

I hate that. It’s inconvenient and, from a consumer’s point of view, extravagantly expensive. (And you thought MY book cost a lot of money!) By and large, I don’t stick with series, especially if they’re as intertwined as mine is, but give me an enormous novel that engages me all the way through and you got me and my money in one shot.

But, you know, it took me a long time to decide whether to split the romances out into 3 books and create a series, or create a long novel. It couldn’t be helped. The structure of the story arc just wouldn’t hold up under the weight of the extra bindings.

The one epic is more than the sum of its parts.

Now, would someone else PLEASE write something long and involved? And if you know of any, please let me know what they are.