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.

11 thoughts on “The zeitgeist of a story

  • July 13, 2009 at 11:29 am

    I have many thoughts at once, which may or may not all be in concert.

    First, it strikes me that a lot of these 70s and 80s novels are historical Romances, so the “zeitgeist” of the times is something that may not have been understood *at the time* or now.

    Rape, for example, is such an interesting subject in Romance, and I know of many readers who will not ever tolerate any forced seduction at any time and in any place no matter what Nancy Friday wrote. Also, I think there’s so much more to the topos than what Friday said that I understand why some readers take it literally (even though legal rape is a violent crime that has been intentionally desexualized), and I understand why some readers see it as only a sexual fantasy. I see it differently than either of those kinds of readers.

    Now, as for making fun of the 70s and 80s, OMG some of those fashion choices and hair! Having survived the 80s myself, it is as much making fun of myself as it is the stuff in those books. Just reading Tom and Sharon Curtis’s 80s contemps is such a trip, in a good and wince-worthy way. But I think you’re talking about something different.

    One of the reasons I think it’s difficult for readers to take a book on its own historical terms (I think this is really what you’re talking about) is that books are not always a straight mirror between reader and historical context. I don’t think we always understand, either currently or even in hindsight, why certain things came to the fore in the genre. Was it just the time, was it marketing mimesis (you know: well, it sold in THAT novel, so let’s publish a hundred of ’em), was it an intra or inter-genre debate, etc.? Also, I think that many readers really resist the idea of “studying” Romance novels, which is why they are more likely to be dismsisive or critical of things that require some thought to suss out.

    I don’t know if any of that makes sense, but it’s most of what came out of the top of my head, lol.

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  • July 13, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Methinks someone didn’t get the “lit crit” theme of the post, which is to say, if you purport to study romance novels as literature, consider the time in which they were written, as you would any other piece of literature.

  • July 13, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    “he “rapes her until she loves him.”” … hey, I think we had that one in my high school library! Or one of those ones. Or something. It was SCANDALOUS … all the girls checked it out at least once. hahaha

    Yeah, um, y’know … revisionist literary criticism irks me. This reminds me of people who freak out about Huckleberry Finn because it’s “racist”. If you’re not going to consider the context, don’t pretend you’re seriously considering the book as “literature”. Life isn’t always politically correct, and neither is all the literature that life inspires.

  • July 13, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Huckleberry Finn because it’s “racist”

    You know what? I thought about that very book and the hullabaloo that surrounds it about every two years.

    all the girls checked it out at least once

    Thank you! That was a point I forgot to make.

  • July 13, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    Robin, not ignoring your comment (thank you, by the way). I’m stewing it over in my head.

    And yes, thank you for pointing out that legal rape is RIGHTFULLY desexualized and I wanted to make that distinction.

    As for 80s hair and fashion, well, it was awesome THEN! 🙂

  • July 13, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    do we really think all these shape changing were creatures humping ladies out in the woods won’t seem sort of ‘dated’ ten years from now

    And I have my theories on THAT, too, as it seems lately I’ve heard tell a few of the werebeasts have started to not fully shift into human before mating.

    I’m wondering what that says about our time, right now. 😉

  • July 13, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    Dude is very annoyed by people who can’t spell a person’s name correctly.

  • July 13, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    Yes, yes, and yes. I was drawn to this blog entry by the cover of my favorite book of all time. The Wolf and The Dove. I will admit that I haven’t read it since I went to college and got all self actualized but do we really think all these shape changing were creatures humping ladies out in the woods won’t seem sort of ‘dated’ ten years from now? This is called mass market for a reason.

  • July 14, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Hi, Heloise and welcome!

    Aside: I do not know how my stupid blog ate my own comment. I know it was here, and now I can’t remember what I said.



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