Thursday, September 28, 2006

Different preferences - variety and change in the romance genre

In the past week there seems to have been a spate of discussions about what's erotic, and what's not, which has led on to discussions about what romance readers do and don't want. On the 26th of September there was a Salon article in which Esther Perel told readers that:
Erotic desire [...] thrives on mystery, unpredictability and politically incorrect power games, not housework battles and childcare woes. Furthermore, increased emotional intimacy between partners often leads to less sexual passion.
You can find experts who'll tell you the complete opposite:
Real intimacy is frightening. It requires a kind of openness, honesty and self-respect that most of us aren't used to. But Schnarch's 30 years of counseling couples has convinced him that it's worth it. [...] Best of all, the sex often becomes more relaxed, creative and connected. Literally and figuratively, no one's hiding in the dark anymore.
Laura Kinsale made a comparison between what Perel had to say about marriage and the romance genre:
The great mistake about the romance genre is, and always has been, to literalize the stories. The critics make this mistake, the censorious make this mistake, and lately even the readers seem to make it, too. Readers have become self-conscious about their fantasies, largely because the fantasies have been conflated with real life political issues for the last few decades.
she adds that
It sometimes begins to seem to me that a goodly percentage of present day romance readers are actually frightened of reading about a real conflict in a book. It's as if they would prefer a therapy session between the characters, with a moderator present to keep things under control while the hero and heroine get equal time to present their side of the story and work through their issues.
This led to a discussion at the Smart Bitches, (27th September) including a comment by Robin that
I think the core of her position is in her comment about the “literalization” of Romance. If I understand Kinsale’s argument, it goes something like this: while so many of our fantasies, archetypes, myths [...] relate to the taboo, to violence, to dark eroticism, etc., in our Romance novels, we’ve moved farther and farther away from honoring those symbolic and metaphoric and mythic levels and have instead grounded all this stuff by inappropriately writing and talking about it in the same way we’d talk about real life issues.
So, does everyone want a marriage of the sort described by Perel, or romance that functions on mythic levels? I'm not sure we all do. Different readers will have different preferences. Personally, I enjoy romances which relate to 'real life issues', and if they did happen to include a therapy session with Dr Oz Strummer I wouldn't complain. In fact, Julie Cohen's Being a Bad Girl, in which he appears, is a good example of how the portrayal of the development of intimacy, real life issues, psychological analysis, and sex scenes can be combined.

Also on the 27th Larissa Ione, blogging at Romancing the Blog asked if it's 'possible that the “high” we get from reading erotic romance has changed our preferences for content…permanently?'. Again, several readers popped up with dissenting views, saying that they preferred romances which were less explicit, and you can even find a reader such as Daisy Goodwin, who says that she doesn't 'want sex [in romantic novels] unless it is comically bad'.

Getting away from issues of eroticism and fantasy, there are some scenarios which are more popular with some people than others, and the differences make themselves felt at a national level as well as between individuals:
Japanese readers love stories about Arabian sheiks and Mediterranean heroes, but don't like romances set in hospitals or rural American settings," Belinda explains. She also adds that Harlequin book covers portraying pregnant heroines, doctors, babies and children typically sell below average.
Whatever one's personal preferences, this evidence of variety within the genre seems to me to be a positive thing, as long as all readers are able to find some novels which they enjoy. It does mean that an author is never going to be able to please every single romance reader, but publishers have long been aware of this fact: Harlequin's many different lines are evidence of that.

So, without getting into a discussion of what's erotic and what's not, because that's a topic that's been heatedly discussed elsewhere, do you enjoy the diversity of the genre, or do you actually find most romances rather similar? Are you able to find romances which suit your tastes or do you lament the passing of a golden era in romance writing?

26 comments:

  1. j as in jennifer29 September, 2006 06:14

    So, without getting into a discussion of what's erotic and what's not, because that's a topic that's been heatedly discussed elsewhere, do you enjoy the diversity of the genre, or do you actually find most romances rather similar? Are you able to find romances which suit your tastes or do you lament the passing of a golden era in romance writing?

    I'll have to read the Salon article tomorrow to find out the whole context of the issue, but Perel could be right. It would explain the whole subgenre of governess romances, where the power relationships between master and servant gives a whole atmosphere of nervous titillation to the novels.

    I think Laura Kinsale is definitely right. I was rather amazed that so many reviewers on Amazon panned her novel "Shadowheart" because it had overtones of sado-masochism. So what? It was a really good story, with fascinating plot turns and a high-stake love affair. Funny, you wouldn't think most romance readers would be so sqeamish. But if they're comparing "Shadowheart" to the majority of romances written in the last decade or so, yes, I guess Kinsale has an "edge." But her heroines have an honesty to them. For the most part, they don't want anything to do with the hero (with a couple of exceptions). There is a real sense of risk involved. They may be troubled by attraction, but they are not coy.

    In so many other romances, the heroine says to the hero, no-no, but in the next scene, somehow they are passionately kissing, yes-yes. There's really little "mystery."

    I've liked both the stormy passionate romances, the domestic Regency romances, the very historically and detailed romances and the not so. It depends on the writing and the story and whether the style fits the setting and the stakes the author is trying to set.

    I'm not sure if Perel was talking about the recent crop of very erotic romances, but mostly I've found them rather tedious, to be honest. There's usually a good opening chapter, some interesting set-up, and then basically nothing happens but the sex, and it goes on and on. (I'm looking at you, Cheryl Holt.) So, really it's only a couple steps up from pornography. Better written, but since everything in this era of PC has to be consensual and mutual, it actually can be a little dull. (I hope it's just not me getting old.)

    So, to answer your question, yes I do find romances to be quite similar in that I don't want to read most of them. But diversity is a good thing. Not everyone wants the same thing out of a romance, I found while exploring this and other romance websites. I do sort of miss the old days when there were more medieval and historical novels and you could "larn stuff." I have a sudden urge to read "The Flame and the Flower" again, just to see if it outrages me more now than it did back when.

    I have to say I hate the new publishers who are coming out in the genre. Their covers are hideous and fonts nearly unreadable on their spines. They don't encourage me to pick them up. Sorry, another rant for another time. : )

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  2. I must admit as a reader and writer of erotica and erotic romance, I'm nevertheless finding it hard to find a good, complex, contemporary romance novel that's a bit sexy and is a rattling good yarn. The superstars like SEP and Jenny Crusie and some of the others. I'd like more of that. And I think there is a kernel of truth to what Laura Kinsale says.

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  3. Jennifer, the Salon article is just about marriage and doesn't mention romance novels at all. I quoted from it because Laura Kinsale did, and the tone of it therefore gives the background to her comments and, since one can find views diametrically opposed to Perel's, it demonstrates how different the various 'prescriptions for success' can be, whether it be for sorting out a marriage or writing a romance.

    think Laura Kinsale is definitely right. I was rather amazed that so many reviewers on Amazon panned her novel "Shadowheart" because it had overtones of sado-masochism.

    Does that not just prove that some readers don't like romances of this sort? What I mean is that it doesn't prove that all readers will be upset by Kinsale's novels (I've read praise of them written by a variety of readers). Kinsale's point seemed to be that criticism of her type of novel demonstrated a triumph of 'PC' in the genre as a whole, and that this was bad for the genre because then the new romances were somehow abandoning the true roots of the romance novel. It also suggested that readers were being guided by 'PC' and thus suppressing their own fantasies. As with Perel on marriage and mystery, I think people's fantasies vary a lot, and not everyone's fantasies will include 'non-PC' things (although I'm not sure how one defines 'PC' in this context - as used by Kinsale it seems to mean anti-rape and anti-power-imbalance-in-relationships).

    I'm not sure if I've followed Kinsale's argument correctly, but that's how I understood it. And if that is her argument, I can't agree that the type of mythic-level romance, full of conflict is the original type - what's being described sound a lot more akin to Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre than to Persuasion or Agnes Grey. I think there's always been diversity within the genre.

    Keziah, what do you see as the kernel of truth? Is it to do with the complexity/sexiness being tied up with conflict and power imbalance between the hero and heroine?

    I'm curious because I don't know much about the novels you, Jennifer and Kinsale are referring to. I haven't read any of Kinsale's novels and the romances I've read are mostly post 1990s Mills & Boon historicals, with a sprinkling of contemporary M&Bs, and a few single-title romances, but none from the 1970s and 1980s. As I was quite happily enjoying my reading, and thinking of these novels as 'romance' it comes as a bit of a suprise to me to be told there's something lacking. So I'm genuinely curious about the issues raised by Kinsale and wonder what it is I've been missing, and whether I'd actually like it if I read it.

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  4. I always think I read a lot of romance until it comes to these discussions, and it feels like I don't read any at all. :)

    Honestly, the genre doesn't feel watered down or homogenized to me, but maybe I just haven't read enough of it, or read it long enough.

    I do get the impression from readers' blogs & forums that quite a lot of people feel the opposite, and I often wonder if it isn't a similar situation to the woman who only meets men in singles bars and then complains that all men are the same. Maybe it's more a matter of being burned out on the same authors or sub-genre than a genre-wide problem.

    I've been thinking ever since I read Kinsale's post about whether the genre has succumbed to literalism (I like that better than 'political correctness'), and I really can't say. I admit to disliking the heroes from some older romances who act like inexplicable jerks until the very end when all of a sudden it's revealed that they acted that way because they were in love. (huh?) But that's a matter, I think, of characterization, not of character type. Shadowheart, on the other hand, I absolutely loved, and in my mind it's the complete opposite of the books I hated, even though a surface description could describe the heroes very similarly.

    If the argument is that readers demand more well-developed characters, I'll agree with that, but I don't think there's a general outcry against certain types or even certain plots.

    The only genre-wide change I've seen is toward stronger heroines. Not specifically kick-ass heroines, but across the board (in my limited reading, that is) heroines are more equal to the heroes. They're not being rescued, either from the dragon, the evil stepmother, or the bad guy with a gun. I can't bring myself to mourn the loss of passive heroines, even if some of the kick-ass ones set my teeth on edge (rudeness = strength? not in my book). Besides, I still find plenty of heroines whose strength is emotional rather than physical.

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  5. I always think I read a lot of romance until it comes to these discussions, and it feels like I don't read any at all. :)

    I'm reassured now. I know you read voraciously, so if even you feel that way, I'll stop worrying that my reasoning is flawed due to not having read enough. What you say suggests that's maybe one's take on this argument has a lot to do with personal perception and preferences (although I do admit to there being gaps in my reading).

    I often wonder if it isn't a similar situation to the woman who only meets men in singles bars and then complains that all men are the same. Maybe it's more a matter of being burned out on the same authors or sub-genre than a genre-wide problem.

    Yes, that would seem to describe some readers, and then there are the people who are pretty much saying the complete opposite, since they complain that their favourite authors have abandoned writing the sort of books they want to read. They seem to have very specific requirements, and they aren't being met because these readers don't just want a particular subgenre and themes, what they want is another book written by their favourite author in their favourite subgenre. And sometimes the favourite author has moved on to a different subgenre, or has stopped writing. Hmm. That's getting away from what Kinsale said and moving towards a general analysis of the complaints made by some romance readers. But it's related, because yet again it indicates that different people perceive the genre very differently, and have very different ideas about how it could be improved.

    heroines are more equal to the heroes. They're not being rescued, either from the dragon, the evil stepmother, or the bad guy with a gun.

    So you're finding that there are more heroines like this? That's the sense I got from my own reading and reading what other people were saying, but there have always been some heroines like this. Heyer's The Grand Sophy is a good example.

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  6. I think characterization has improved greatly in romance novels in the past 20-30 years. If you compare The Flame & the Flower to some of Julia Quinn's novels, for example, you get a good contrast. In TFATF the characters are archetypes—he's an arrogant, forceful, rapist and she's passive, timid, and sweet. She doesn't have any control over her own destiny whatsoever. It's just her inherent beauty and softness that finally turns him into a considerate husband.

    In Julia Quinn's "To Sir Phillip With Love," you get a story about two people with complex issues who both want to be happy in a relationship and have to find some common ground. They're both fantasies, but the latter story is grounded in reality in a way that is ultimately more satisfying to read, IMO, because the characters' problems hurt more than a mythical rape or big misunderstanding.

    As to the tyranny of the politically correct, I think Kinsale's point about "therapy sessions between the characters," is well taken. One of the reasons I appreciated "Shadowheart" so much was exactly because of the B&D sex scenes. They did feel edgy (OK, I am sheltered) and un-PC, but it worked because it was the woman dominating the man and it completely made sense for those characters. On the other hand, "A Rogue in Texas," which I read not too long ago, I found completely irritating because the hero and heroine talked about their issues in so much depth and wordiness that they ended up sounding exactly the same and not at all like inhabitants of their supposed time and class.

    A lot of sex scenes in romances are boring because they're so equal. I don't long for a return to the rapist-hero, but a more little tension in the bedroom wouldn't hurt. Especially if you're setting up one character as an experienced lothario and the other as a frightened virgin. Everyone, it seems, from inexperienced girls to dried-up spinsters are jumping into bed ready and willing to be an enthusiastic and equal participant and it's orgasms all around.

    I don't know how many of you remember your first sexual experience, but usually they're pretty awkward and embarrassing at best, painful and upsetting at worst.

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  7. Laura V, I'm well aware that there are various personal reactions and preferences and that they vary widely. But I also think there are overall trends in any sort of cultural phenomenon.

    I wrote my comment rather quickly so I didn't go into depth on examples and such, but I'll give one that's currently on the AAR board, a thread about "burning clothes" in which a reader complains that it's immoral theft for the heroine to take away the hero's clothing while he's asleep, and wants to know if other readers can "identify" with a heroine who would do that.

    To me as an author, lol, I just look at a character action like that--"Hey, dude, I'm taking your whole closet to the dumpster, how do you like them apples!" as merely a dramatic act; like an angry hero punching his fist through the wall. OK, as an author I'm not going to have him punch the heroine, but wait, gee, isn't putting a hole in the wall property damage? Does this make the guy an irresponsible jerk who needs anger management therapy? No, I don't expect readers to want to live with a partner who would actually do that, but that's not what they are being asked to do. They're reading a book; it's a book, it's a story. These are dramatic constructs on a stage. Show me a Shakespearean drama where the main characters act in a theraputic, sensible and moral way.

    So that's also the kind of trend that I mean, this weakening of dramatic actions, watering them down to suit safe and modern sensibilities. It's a bit amusing--I've never read the Cohen book you wrote about in your last post, and I certainly loved the notion of a hero named Oz who rides a motorcycle, but I must say that my reaction to hearing that his dialogue contained specific theraputic pronouncements almost made me add a comment about how that sounds really boring! ;) It's not fair for me to say that, not having read the book, so I didn't. But really, while a specific author might be able to pull that off in an specific book (my personal approach to it would be to make it comical and sweet, like the hero desperately tossing out therapy cliches when he finds himself out of his depth emotionally) I think it's more likely going to be the kind of approach that feels more like a lecture on how ideal people should behave. Is this was romance readers want? They may say so, they may think so, but what it does, in terms of a writer's approach, is that it knocks all the conflict OUTSIDE the dynamic between the characters. If all of their conflict must be within themselves and/or btw them and the environment (horror/suspense) then the romance just doesn't happen. That's when readers say, this book was okay but it just didn't have spark.

    They recognize the lack of spark, but they may not recognize why there is none. That's my point. It's actually a technical issue in a writing sense. If every mother must be a great mother, then novels about mother-child interactions are not going to be very interesting. If every hero and heroine must be mature and understanding and treat one another the way a therapist would advise, then their story is just going to be a nice photo album of their happy journey to marriage.

    Is that what readers want? Maybe some do, but many others don't. But if enough of them vocally object to conflict, or certain types of conflict, then that is what they will get--and are getting in some percentage of cases which seems to me to constitute a trend.



    LK

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  8. In Julia Quinn's "To Sir Phillip With Love," you get a story about two people with complex issues who both want to be happy in a relationship and have to find some common ground. [...] the latter story is grounded in reality in a way that is ultimately more satisfying to read, IMO, because the characters' problems hurt more than a mythical rape or big misunderstanding.

    This is interesting, and seems to me to get to the core of the statement about readers not being so willing to read about conflict. From what you say (and from my own experience) it's not that readers aren't willing to read about conflict, but that the type of conflict they want to read about can differ. I think you're right that conflict can be written about situations which are maybe less obviously dramatic than abductions, rapes or Big Misunderstandings, but are nonetheless deeply felt. But a key to making it deeply felt is, as you say, the characterisation.

    A lot of sex scenes in romances are boring because they're so equal. I don't long for a return to the rapist-hero, but a more little tension in the bedroom wouldn't hurt. [...]

    I don't know how many of you remember your first sexual experience, but usually they're pretty awkward and embarrassing at best, painful and upsetting at worst.


    But from what I've read, the rapist heroes with virgin heroes also lead to 'orgasms all around', so that wasn't any more realistic than 'inexperienced girls to dried-up spinsters [...] jumping into bed ready and willing to be an enthusiastic and equal participant' and there being 'orgasms all round'. If it's all fantasy, then maybe what's changed is the sort of fantasy that's most popular at the moment?

    A lot of sex scenes in romances are boring because they're so equal.

    If a romance doesn't have sex scenes I tend not to notice. If there is a sex scene I want it to fit the characters (back to characterisation again ;-) ) and I quite like the ones which include humour and tenderness. I don't find that boring. But that's my personal preference. For example, at the very end of Louise Allen's Moonlight and Mistletoe the hero and heroine talk, the hero begins to undress, they get into bed together and:

    There was a second of breathless stillness then Hester gave an outraged shriek and recoiled. 'Your feet are freezing!'

    Guy regarded her solemnly, only the faintest twitch at the corner of his lips betraying his amusement. 'You know, Hester, in the frequent, heated and very detailed fantasies I had entertained of making love to you, the need for a hot brick in flannel or a pair of bed socks never occurred to me.'

    Hester collapsed on his chest, helpless with giggles (2005: 467-468).


    They do sort out the problem with the cold feet, but, to use an appropriate cliche, that incident breaks the ice - it seems to me to make the scene more real, and I liked it. But I expect there are some readers who wouldn't.

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  9. Thanks for commenting at more length, Laura.

    They're reading a book; it's a book, it's a story. These are dramatic constructs on a stage. Show me a Shakespearean drama where the main characters act in a theraputic, sensible and moral way.

    So that's also the kind of trend that I mean, this weakening of dramatic actions, watering them down to suit safe and modern sensibilities.


    I'm reminded of some of the quotations from Northrop Frye that Eric posted a while ago:

    51: “the mimetic tendency itself, the tendency to verisimilitude and accuracy of description, is one of two poles of literature. At the other pole is something that seems to be connected both with Aristotle’s word mythos and with the usual meaning of myth. That is, it is a tendency to tell a story which is in origin a story about characters who can do anything, and only gradually becomes attracted toward a tendency to tell a plausible or credible story.”

    52: “We may think of our romantic, high mimetic and low mimetic modes as a series of displaced myths, mythoi or plot-formulas progressively moving over towards the opposite pole of verisimilitude, and then, with irony, beginning to move back.”


    It seems to me that a novel like Austen's Persuasion is perhaps at the 'pole of verisimilitude', whereas the novels that you're talking about, which are 'dramatic constructs' are at the opposite end.

    I don't think that either Anne Elliott or Captain Wentworth are perfect, and there is some conflict between them, it's just not as dramatic as burning someone's clothes or punching a wall.

    If every mother must be a great mother, then novels about mother-child interactions are not going to be very interesting. If every hero and heroine must be mature and understanding and treat one another the way a therapist would advise, then their story is just going to be a nice photo album of their happy journey to marriage.

    That sounds like what Tolstoy said about happy families:'All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' (The Columbia World of Quotations)

    But I don't agree with Tolstoy. Just because people are happy or good doesn't mean they're perfect or that they're clones of each other. I can understand that some people might find the story boring, because the conflicts might be quite subtle, but they're still there. And for the people who like that sort of book, it could be that the characters in the more dramatic novels seem tediously lacking in common sense (I've seen plenty of comments about Too Stupid to Live heroines and Big Misunderstandings).

    So, to summarise, I think both of the poles that Frye mentions have been represented in romance since the beginning of the genre, though I'm sure you're right about trends which mean that at particular times the majority of new novels in the genre will perhaps be more towards one end or the other. Both types can be well or badly written, and I think characterisation is key to whether or not a story has a 'spark' or not. But, if a particular story is of a kind that a reader doesn't like, they won't appreciate it, so it won't spark for them. To continue with the Austen example, I love Persuasion and it's one of my favourite novels, but I'm sure some people find it tedious. And then I can barely remember the plot of Wuthering Heights because to me that was boring. I wanted the characters to stop behaving in what to me felt like silly, childish ways. I can accept that Wuthering Heights is a great novel, but for me the romance lacks any spark, whereas I see sparks aplenty between Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth.

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  10. Persuasion would have a tough row to hoe these days if it were to be sent around to romance editors, because the heroine isn't "kick-ass." I can guarantee you this is the case from personal experience. I love to do heroines who exhibit the sort of quiet strength that women have always shown no matter what their cultural position, but it's not politically correct (and I return to that phrasing because I think it's quite appropriate) for a heroine to make a choice such as taking an elder's wise advice and rejecting a suitor that the reader would instantly recognize as hot stuff. Not in the romance genre, specifically. Now the heroine is supposed to be running her own business on Bond Street and telling off the relatives who try to interfere.

    I can see the thread on AAR now..."Anne was just SUCH a wuss! I couldn't stand it that she wouldn't just tell off her family. Her sister walked all over her, and that father! I would have let him go to debtor's prison, myself. Why didn't she stand up for herself? I threw it across the room by chapter 3." ;)

    Perhaps we're not really on the same page here, Laura V, doubtless because I'm not articulating this well. The subtlety of the conflict is not at all the issue. It's the nature of what the characters are allowed to be and how they are allowed to act. Believe me, Persuasion, would be just as problematic as Shadowheart in today's romance genre market, because neither one of them presents a modern reader's mindset.

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  11. Well let me amend that--neither presents a "correct" modern mindset for how people should behave.

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  12. It's the nature of what the characters are allowed to be and how they are allowed to act. Believe me, Persuasion, would be just as problematic as Shadowheart in today's romance genre market, because neither one of them presents [...] a "correct" modern mindset for how people should behave.

    So what you're saying is that current thinking about what's morally admirable is affecting the sorts of heroes and heroines that appear in romance? Is this particularly problematic for writers of historical romances who want to write characters who are true to the mindset of the period in which the novel is set? I'm assuming that a '"correct" modern mindset' would be more appropriate in contemporaries. Or do you not think it's appropriate there either?

    I suppose the counter-argument (and I've seen it argued just recently on AAR) is that many of the behaviours which were presented in earlier romances as historically correct weren't, in fact, historically correct. So, if they weren't historically correct, why were romance authors choosing to have so many characters behaving in particular ways? Was it because it enabled writers to create stories which appealed to the fantasies of their readers in that particular historical period (i.e. the 1970s/1980s)?

    Like I said, I haven't read enough in the genre, and particularly not enough from earlier decades to be able to have an opinion on how romance has changed and how this might relate to societal attitudes, so I'm just putting the argument as I think it might be developed, based on comments I've read.

    Is it that modern romances are less diverse re characterisation than romances from earlier decades, or is it that they're differently homogenous? Presumably heroines of the type you describe as being popular now wouldn't have been so popular in the past?

    I know you mentioned vampires in your original post on your bulletin board, and I posted about them about a month ago, in relation to some comments made to Laurie Gold, which she then posted in an At the Back Fence column, about how the fantasy scenario in paranormal romances maybe allows readers to enjoy their 'non-PC' fantasies without feeling bad about them. That's not much help to authors of historicals who would like to write characters with some of the personality traits that are permissible in paranormals, but without those characters having fur and/or fangs.

    I suppose what I'm wondering is:

    (a) were the sorts of characters you like to write about more popular in the past because they fitted in with the then-contemporary moral attitudes and fantasies?

    (b) if they were in historicals were they historically accurate for the periods in which they were set?

    [I read some comments that Victoria Dahl made, over at the History Hoydens blog and she rightly pointed out that a lot of what most of us who haven't done the research assume to be 'historically correct' may not be, and tends to ignore some of the more interesting real-life people who did unusual and outrageous things. It made me wonder if any historical romance is ever going to be entirely unaffected by attitudes held by the author, though obviously some authors make a lot more effort to achieve historical accuracy than others]

    (c) In your original post you said that 'The great mistake about the romance genre is, and always has been, to literalize the stories', so does that mean that you think that particular types of stories and characters (i.e. the ones that appear in novels that are being published now) are not appropriate for the genre?

    (d) When you say that 'Readers have become self-conscious about their fantasies' do you think that romance readers who make the sorts of complaints you describe are deluding themselves, so while they say they want the new types of characters, what they really want/need is the old sort?

    Sorry, that's an awful lot of questions. I've found the discussion very thought-provoking and I'd rather ask questions than make assumptions about what you mean. It does seem to be a discussion which is touching on a lot of hot-button issues for a lot of people (not so much here, but I'm thinking of how the discussion progressed elsewhere), so I'm trying to be careful not to press those buttons. I may not be succeeding, of course, and maybe I'm just being a bit slow to understand your comments, but in that case I think I'll blame it on the time difference. It's very late now over here. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it ;-)

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  13. j as in jennifer30 September, 2006 03:37

    Just because people are happy or good doesn't mean they're perfect or that they're clones of each other. I can understand that some people might find the story boring, because the conflicts might be quite subtle, but they're still there.

    I suppose it boils down to people who like stories about women who are pretty happy in their lives, they have a problem, they meet the hero, solve the problem and live happily ever after. "Why can't I have my inheritance unless I agree to marry this sexy jerk?"

    Some romances seem to be for women who just enjoy reading about the hero's firm buttocks or sweaty chest or his hard biceps.

    I guess those are fine for them that likes 'em, but I read for pleasure, not just for recreation. These kinds of characters don't interest me and the prose style is often repetitive and parodic. (That said, some of the above type novels could be written in a very charming manner so as to amuse and not to bore.)

    For instance, I thought "To Sir Phillip with Love" would have been a more interesting novel if Sir Phillip had actually been quite cranky and a man of few words (as so many writers can be in person, and vice-versa) and if the heroine had not been so lovely, yet so prat-fallish. But that's just me, rewriting other people's hard work.

    To continue with the Austen example, I love Persuasion and it's one of my favourite novels, but I'm sure some people find it tedious. And then I can barely remember the plot of Wuthering Heights because to me that was boring.

    I also like Persuasion, but then, as I recall, it wasn't a novel full of happy characters. There was real emotion and complication to the story. I agree with you about Wuthering Heights, though. It wasn't that it was boring -- it was just so pointless. It's not about love at all, but obsession and madness. It was my father's favorite novel, by the way. :)

    I read all sorts of romance, from your Pride and Prejudice misunderstanding type, to your Jane Eyre gothic type, to Gone with the Wind type adventure sagas. I read paranormals and science fantasy and some romantica, so I feel pretty broadly read. Perhaps with the exception of contemporaries -- of the top 10 comfort read authors on AAR, I only read Mary Balogh, Jennifer Crusie and Loretta Chase (I used to read Julia Quinn and Amanda Quick, but they got kind of boring). So you can see that there must be a lot of people on the other side of the fence from me. Maybe it's not a fence, but a House of Romance with many exotic rooms to choose from: some people like the warm, cheery kitchen; others like the mysterious attic. Anyway, I feel like I'm in the Star Chamber room by myself feeling let down by the almost saccharine niceness of Balogh's "Simply Love". Meanwhile there's a party upstairs with 100 women and some male strippers. : )

    But from what I've read, the rapist heroes with virgin heroes also lead to 'orgasms all around', so that wasn't any more realistic than 'inexperienced girls to dried-up spinsters [...] jumping into bed ready and willing to be an enthusiastic and equal participant' and there being 'orgasms all round'.

    Yes, and all the heroes are fantastic at sex. None in the last 15 years have failed to find a woman's clitoris, and their first priority is to satisfy their partner -- even the rakes, the rapists and the selfish rogues.

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  14. I'll see what I can address here, Laura V (maybe in more than one comment, heh):

    (a) were the sorts of characters you like to write about more popular in the past because they fitted in with the then-contemporary moral attitudes and fantasies?

    Hmmm. This question is indicative to me that I'm not really getting my point across.

    First off, let me address "the sorts of characters I like to write." I think you may have the idea that I like to write the classic alpha hero and feel as if I can't do it because of PCness. That's not the case. I have done a variety of heroes and heroines and matched them up in various ways. Often I start with one or the other, with some character issue that interests me, and I create the partner in some kind of opposition. (This isn't always the case, but sometimes.) This would be along the lines of something Sandra Brown said years ago, "If your hero is firefighter, make your heroine an arsonist." (Now that's a conflict. ;))

    If I'm guilty of any "retro" tendency in my characters, it's probably toward having a...what shall we call it? Some call it "weak" some call it TSTL...I would call it a heroine who is true to her character. IE, when I did a Quaker heroine, I spent months researching Quakerism of the period and used the heroine's religious feelings in a way that I felt was true to both her personality and her time. I attempted to show that by her connection with a nobleman, she was viewed as making a serious error that resulted in her expulsion from her own people, and that this upset her and gave her strong reasons to resist the relationship all the way to the end. In a way it's related to Anne Elliot's original motivation for resisting Wentworth--a motivation completely grounded in a reasoning that submits without question to outside authority and community standards. (This is naturally not a popular tendency among we modern women. ;))

    I did another heroine whose strong self-image was very much grounded in living by the etiquette and behavior of a "lady" of her time, even while she was living on the edge of poverty. I paired her with a hero who was rich and wealthy but still devastated by his childhood abuse in a brothel.

    On the other hand, I've done an upstanding knight and a devious, lying heroine, a washed up highwayman and a wannabe swordswoman bent on revenge, and a stiff-rumped duke with a ditzy genius inventress.

    All of these books were well-recieved in their day (early 90's); many are still in print and appear on the top favorites list of many readers even now.

    So the gist of your question, have moral attitudes and fantasies changed toward the kind of characters I like to write, is kinda beside the point. I don't know if they have or not. The variety in my characters makes that impossible to judge.

    What seems to me to have changed within the genre is the allowance for a character to be or do anything that is outside 21st century reality-based comfort zones. I don't think this is a change in morality or fantasy, but a change in self-consciousness and a certain wariness about conflict itself. Actually in the very thread that you and I have been posting in on AAR this evening, Emma articulates this much better than I have. So let me crib from her:

    One important aspect of the erotic is that it feels risky, it pushes boundaries, it discomforts as much as it titillates -- indeed, discomfort is a part of the titillation...I'd say 90% of the DIK romances on this site feature some form of conflict BETWEEN the hero and heroine which makes their relationship, both in and out of bed, occasionally feel risky and uncomfortable to them. This uncertainty is a crucial part of erotic tension....Some see a trend in romance in which writers fear offending readers. This obviously makes it much more difficult to write storylines that provide opportunities for risk and conflict between the hero and heroine that seem authentically risky and therefore exciting. If you want to write about moments in which the difference between hero and heroine becomes obvious and unnerving and therefore erotically charged, making the hero a different species instantly creates a sort of "safe space" in which to deploy issues of risk and uncertainty.

    It's late for me too, so I'll come back to your other questions tomorrow if I can.

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  15. First off, let me address "the sorts of characters I like to write." I think you may have the idea that I like to write the classic alpha hero and feel as if I can't do it because of PCness. That's not the case. I have done a variety of heroes and heroines and matched them up in various ways.

    Sorry, I didn't mean to give that impression. I know you write a variety of characters, and people have often commented on how complex they are. I just wondered what it was that they had in common which made you feel that it was less acceptable nowadays to write the characters you want to write.

    Re the quotation from Emma, particularly this bit 'One important aspect of the erotic is that it feels risky, it pushes boundaries, it discomforts as much as it titillates -- indeed, discomfort is a part of the titillation...', it seems to me that while that may be what many people find 'erotic', it isn't necessarily erotic for everyone. I'm thinking of 'erotic' as meaning 'relating to or tending to arouse sexual desire or excitement' (Compact Oxford English Dictionary). And, of course, not everyone reads romance novels because of the erotic content. I think there's always going to be degree of risk involved in falling in love, because however similar the two people are, unless they can mind-read they won't be sure the other person reciprocates their feelings. At the same time, I don't think the conflict in a romance has to be primarily related to personality differences between the protagonists. In Jenny Crusie's Anyone But You for example, the hero and heroine like the same food, films, dog and apartment building and are agreed that neither wants children. The problem is caused by the self-doubt which arises from their age difference. Emma asked

    would you find a romance in which hero and heroine meet, fall in love, have a nice dating period, and then get married -- without any problems aside from the minor spat over whose turn it is to clean the toilet -- interesting? Probably not.

    But I think I would, if they were interesting characters. I'm sure they could have witty conversations, and I'd be interested to see how their intimacy developed, how they would end up with shared jokes, and, as I said, there would be some element of risk, in that to start with neither could be absolutely certain that the other was interested. That would be enough risk to interest me in the story.

    Maybe this signifies a 'certain wariness about conflict itself'. Certainly that's true for me if the conflict is very large and dramatic. But I do enjoy reading about the resolving of smaller conflicts, and external conflict. I suppose for me this level/type of conflict makes a happy ending more plausible. But it's also that I can find conflict boring if it involves lots of big misunderstandings, because I can't relate emotionally to that sort of relationship (whether in reality or as reflecting the conflict within the self). A meeting of two minds, subtly and wittily negotiating their minor differences is more interesting to me. Maybe it's the difference between a painting on a 'little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory' and a huge oilpainting. Both are interesting in their own way. And both can be done badly and therefore be boring.

    Jennifer - when you say about Persuasion that 'as I recall, it wasn't a novel full of happy characters', I think this illustrates the difficulty in talking about risk and complexity in the abstract. If characters are well-developed, then none of them will seem like 'happy characters', because nobody's happy all the time. But Anne and Frederick are 'happy characters' compared to some of the really tormented characters you can find in romance. That's why I think maybe it's an issue of the scale of the story (is it at the realistic pole of story-telling, painted on ivory, or is it a more broadbrush oil-painting?) and the author's skill creating interesting characters.

    I do accept, though, that at certain periods some editors will try to discourage particular stories. Editors are perhaps more interested in what will sell in large quantities, and that means they'll be guided by market trends, which don't always reflect what all readers want. A book can start a trend and be followed by large numbers of imitations of it. The imitations sometimes contain only the outward trappings of what made the original story good, but lack the spark and the complexity/subtlety/intensity which brought the original to life.

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  16. do you enjoy the diversity of the genre, or do you actually find most romances rather similar? Are you able to find romances which suit your tastes or do you lament the passing of a golden era in romance writing?
    I think in relation to contemporary romance (ie not historical, erotic or fantasy/para/sf) I'm finding it hard to come across novels that provide a modern day sensibility and some good conflict. The conflict seems contrived and not based on the actual, meaningful choices of the characters. Maybe I'm not reading the right books, which is very possible since romance as a genre is extraordinarily absent from bookstores in Australia (we're gratefull Borders has just spread here - one type of American imperialism I'm thankful for). That's why I like Flowers from the Storm, because the choice the heroine confonts has something to do with her core internal values. She has to rist losing herself and her identity for love (that's the way I read it anyway). Those big dilemmas I don't see much in contemporary romance, and yet women face choices about family, work, children, sexual preference etc all the time. And sure, while lots of romance is fantasy and the market may not want to read about issues so close to home, there is the potienial for so much meaty characteriation and pure story.

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  17. Hmmmm. Hmmm hmmm hmmm.

    Well, this is an interesting discussion for sure.

    One thing that occured to me while reading your last comment, Laura V, is that I used the term "erotic" because it came out of the Perel quotes; that's the term she used.

    But when I stop and think about it, I'm not limiting my sense of this issue to eroticism per se. I think really the terms "passion" and "desire" are equally valid to describe the element I'm getting at. As I mentioned over on my own board, I don't think a romance even has to contain a sex scene--and sometimes the physical sex actually gets in the way.

    Heyer was a master of creating a sense of passion and desire within a drawing room setting where the characters never touch, much less kiss. Austen did it particularly well in Pride and Prejudice in Darcy's first proposal scene and in Persuasion in Wentworth's letter scene. Both are full of passion--and risk too. Darcy gets smacked across the chops (figuratively, lol), and Wentworth has no idea if what he's writing will be well-recieved or if he's laying his heart bare for nothing. But they both care deeply about the reaction they will get; therefore they are at great risk emotionally even though they smother their outward actions. There's pride and shame at stake for both of them.

    That's great romantic conflict. It's full of passion and desire--whether it's erotic or not, I guess would depend on how the reader interprets the term erotic. It certainly trends more toward it than away from it, to me.

    *******

    If you don't mind, I'm going to address your other questions over on my message board, since I opened the discussion there.

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  18. Thanks, Laura K.

    And for anyone wanting to read Laura K's answers to my other questions, but who doesn't know where to find them, they're here. It's part of the thread I linked to in my blog post, the one on her message board, but this link I've just given here in the comments section takes you straight to Laura K's response to my questions.

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  19. The thing I find fascinating about this whole discussion is the issue of moral sensibility which is emerging -- at least is my mind -- as one of the central issues at stake here. For me, anyway, the genre of Romance has always engaged a tension between obedience and subversion, myth and materiality. Some of the most direct predecessors of the Romance are morality tracts, so is it really such a surprise that readers may have a tendency to connect on a literal level to the genre, or to have ready-made moral judgments about its characters? It's definitely one of the things that frustrates me the most, for some of the reasons Kinsale outlines, but I don't think it's new.

    As a reader who has been involved in numerous discussions about a need for more complexity, more moral ambiguity, more diversity, more depth, more pages, more risks, etc. in Romance, I guess I object to any characterization of "readers" that doesn't reflect these conversations have been and are occurring across the blogsphere and Internet generally. Some readers, of course, don't want more of any or all of these things in their Romance, but I actually have a tendency to see these readers as closer to the logic of the genre's evolution rather than as products of a PC generation. In other words, I tend to see them as more "traditional" readers of the genre. And fortunately, I can read a number of more "traditional" Romances and enjoy them. But yes, I'd like more on the mythic and the subversive side, certainly.

    Although I don't think I'd like it if we went completely in that direction, because in part, I think it's the tension that's energizing, the play between the mythic and the material, the conformity and subversion. I think the depth and complexity of the genre really lies in this tension, not in either component of it per se. I think it's as much a flattening of the genre to push it to the mythic as to the material, to the symbolic OR the literal.

    I don't really see so much the problem of critical response to the genre being that of literalization as much as not engaging the tension between the literal and the symbolic and grounding discussion at that nexus. I don't know how this point relates to Kinsale's argument, really, because every time I think I've understood what she's getting at, she says something else that has me questioning my understanding. I agree with her that readers are asking for mutually contradictory things, but I question whether it's always the same readers who are doing this, and also whether it's simply in the nature of the genre and of reading the genre to express contradiction of this sort. I actually think I'd argue that the genre itself emerged from some fundamental contradictions related to the relationship between sex and love, conformity and defiance, eroticism and domesticiy, etc. And I don't think that Romance is going to stop being contradictory (or our responses to it) until our own psyches get past that, which I don't see happening anytime soon, if our social dynamics are any indication.

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  20. I think it's the tension that's energizing, the play between the mythic and the material, the conformity and subversion. I think the depth and complexity of the genre really lies in this tension, not in either component of it per se. I think it's as much a flattening of the genre to push it to the mythic as to the material, to the symbolic OR the literal.

    I agree - for example, where romance engages with fairy tales there's obviously a non-real element, and an awareness of the fictional nature of the romance. It perhaps encourages the reader to wonder whether the story being told in the romance is more 'real' than a fairy tale. Fairy tales were often used to teach children how to conform to social norms (Perrault, or the Brothers Grimm), so when the motifs in the fairy-tale are changed, that challenges the morality of the authority figures. And because the authorities are real, that does engage with real, social issues.

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  21. Exactly, Laura! I was thinking the same thing about fairy tales. And look at Freud's work; agree or disagree, like him or hate him, you can't deny that he understood how powerful the link is between the the mind and the material world. Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Foucault, Wittgenstein -- what great philosopher hasn't been involved in this seemingly eternal conversation.

    Maybe all Kinsale is saying is that we're already swung too far in one direction, but again, I think this depends on the book and the reader in question. As for trends in the genre itself, are we really so far removed from Romance in the 80s? Aren't the books we remember from that period stil around because they were exceptional even then? I'm asking this as a real question, not a rhetorical one.

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  22. Maybe all Kinsale is saying is that we're already swung too far in one direction

    I'm very confused by all this, I have to admit. I find it hard to disentangle what's being meant by 'reality' and 'fantasy' in the context of this discussion, since, as you've pointed out, the two are linked, because 'fantasy' is often a way of working out real-life issues. So, for example, the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is not a real wolf, but he may represent something real (a threat and/or male sexuality). It seems to me that Kinsale's not just talking about fantasy, but about a particular kind of fantasy. But I'm not at all sure which direction things might be swinging in, since the different factors don't seem to me to necessarily be in opposition to each other, or perhaps all the variables have to be plotted in more than one direction at a time.

    PC/non-PC, erotic/non-erotic, fantasy/reality

    And if that doesn't make a huge amount of sense, that's probably because I'm a bit confused and finding it difficult to draw distinctions.

    I haven't read any romances from the 80s, so I don't know what they're like, but it would seem likely to me that the ones that are still remembered and discussed today are the outstanding ones (whether because they shocked or pleased the readers). The reader's memory of average books is, it seems to me, more likely to fade as time passes.

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  23. I'm very confused by all this, I have to admit. I find it hard to disentangle what's being meant by 'reality' and 'fantasy' in the context of this discussion, since, as you've pointed out, the two are linked, because 'fantasy' is often a way of working out real-life issues.

    If I go only by the comments Kinsale and others left at AAR recently, I'd say she was just talking about the fact that erotic desire in Romance isn't always -- or best -- expressed in literal forms. That "dangerous" desires and behaviors can heighten the erotic tension in Romance, in part because most of us would never try this stuff at home. That the edge of taboo becomes the kind of edginess that gets a reader off because it's a dramatization of the undercurrents of the reader's mind, and they have freer play in situations of semi-make believe. That in playing it safe, we're taking the edge out that erotic tension, "literalizing" it, and making it stale.

    But that's not a new argument, and Kinsale has said several things that go beyond that point, so I only think that's part of it. Or maybe it's that even in that, there are other issues that are part and parcel of a discussion of the subconscious mind and erotic tension. To say, for example, that readers who find forced seduction in their Romance distasteful are being too literal (which is bad) strikes me as sort of a literalization in its own way, as well.

    I agree whole heartedly with Kinsale, though, when she laments the lack of risk-taking in the current Romance market. I think she's absolutely and sadly correct about that, and I wonder how and if it's affecting her own MS shopping.

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  24. That the edge of taboo becomes the kind of edginess that gets a reader off

    I still think there's a lot of variability with this. For example, there are some taboos which are probably not edgy to very many people. To give an example, I've read comments by people who've read a romance and were horrified by the idea of a relationship between cousins, for example, so to them that's taboo, whereas to me it seems quite normal - and happens frequently in Austen and Heyer. This may be taboo, but I'm not sure there can be many people who would find this 'edgy'.

    Then there are some behaviours which might seem 'edgy' to some and so offensive/repellent to others that they can't suspend their disbelief and so for them the book is quickly transformed from 'edgy fantasy' to 'book which includes something that snaps me out of the fantasy'. I'll try to invent an example, again based on comments I've read about real romances. Let's say that the couple wake up in the morning and are really turned on by each others' smells. From a scientific point of view this would make sense because humans probably do have pheromones. And for some people a scene involving sniffing, the heroine's underarm hair and delight in body odour could be edgy and interesting, symbolising total acceptance and fascination with the other person's body. And it might be particularly appropriate in a werewolf romance ;-) . But to some readers this would just be yucky and they'd want both hero and heroine to go for a morning shower (I've read comments regarding showers and teeth-brushing about novels which had characters waking up and making love).

    It seems to me that to remain edgy, the fantasy depicted has to remain on that edge, not fall off it into something the reader finds really repellent. And where a particular reader's edge is will vary. Laura K said that the erotic doesn't have to include a depiction of sex, and that's true, but even so there will be some behaviours which will be edgy to some and over the edge for others.

    Maybe one of the problems I'm having here is that when I read I tend not to be thinking 'this is fantasy', because in a well-written romance the emotions feel vivid and real. And some people's tolerance for reading about a character's pain is lower than others'. Maybe those who are less emotionally involved are more aware of the story as fantasy. I know that I can read in different ways: when I read novels as course-work, I would be more distanced from them and so could deal with characters who go through far more pain and suffering than I would ever tolerate when I'm reading for pleasure. Anyway, that means that what's sort of fantasy/symbolic for one person can be too deeply and emotionally real for another.

    I'd say she was just talking about the fact that erotic desire in Romance isn't always -- or best -- expressed in literal forms.

    But given that the novels involve sentient beings, that can be enough to make it feel real for some people. They might be able to see the actions as non-literal if the story were about a red and a blue ball, who after dreadful scenes of bouncing off each other and hitting the ceiling eventually changed and could curl up together into a ying and yang shape. But as long as the story involves two people doing things which are possible to do in real life (e.g. shouting, hitting, dominating each other) they'll be unable to remain un-upset by this, and telling such readers not to take things literally is about as useful as the old saying 'sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you'. We all know that words can hurt, and clearly some words hurt some people more than others, even if, on a logical level, they know that what they're reading is 'just a book'.

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  25. You know, as a teenager when I read romance novels I wanted them to be as "realistic" as possible. I actually wanted to know how it would "really" feel to have sex for the first time, how a "real" buyer at Neiman Marcus would act, how "real" men treated a women they were attracted to.

    Now that I'm an adult, I enjoy the symbolism and nuances of fantasy. I want the characters and storyline to be an exaggerated version of "real life." I want that escape from real life because I enjoy the story to be told in an artificial universe. I’m finding that realism is boring for me.

    Maybe I’m just regressing. :o

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  26. I think both types are equally valid (and there is a continuum between the very 'realistic' and the very symbolic/fantastic/mythical). Personally, I haven't read any romances which describe real life as I live it (I've read a lot of historical romances, but this is also the case even with the contemporary romances), so I suppose even the 'realistic' romances still constitute an 'escape from real life' for me. On the other hand, if the romances at the mythical end of the spectrum

    correspond in some way to the world of romance experienced by the reader while reading the book itself--and, by extension, to the worlds of desire and love

    as Eric was suggesting of paranormal romanceshere, then maybe both types are realistic, but the more prosaic romances are describing a different sort of emotional and physical reality. Paradoxically, the mythic romances may be describing the reality of many (not all) readers' emotional desires/fantasies.

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