Monday, November 06, 2006

Compare and Contrast

Paperback Writer's challenge to authors to write a free online short story/e-book has produced 'one of the largest collections of free e-books by a group of writers as diverse as we are, so there is probably something here for every type of reader'. As it happens, none of them were in the romance sub-genres I tend to read, and while I don't think I'd choose to read any of these sub-genres again, reading these short stories/novellas did give me a tiny bit more insight into those sub-genres (though obviously I wouldn't make assumptions about the quality/themes etc of a whole sub-genre on the basis of just a few short examples).

Not all the stories are romances, but some are, and the variety certainly produces some interesting juxtapositions. For example, we have Sandra Barret's contemporary American-set lesbian romance short story One on One alongside Rachel Brown's contemporary Australian-set Christian Inspirational romance Pelican Point.

There were actually a lot of similarities. Both writers have other short stories available on their websites, for one thing, and both of these stories make reference to religion (though Barret's heroine is a Catholic, and Brown's a Protestant), and depict characters who struggle to do the right thing. What really struck me, though, was how both of the heroines assume their dating choices are limited, and that it's unlikely they'll find the right partner in their current setting. In Pelican Point Claire muses that
her feet were too firmly planted on the ground to expect that anyone she met outside of her church circles would be likely to share her strong commitment to God. And as far as she was concerned, it was entirely irrelevant how attractive any man was if he wasn't a Christian. (Chapter 1)
and later Cameron admires how 'she boldly owned her Christian faith' (Chapter 4) rather than hiding it. Claire herself says that 'my belief in God is the most important part of my life, and it affects everything I do and say, so it's much easier if you're aware of that right from the beginning' (Chapter 1).

I'm not sure whether committed Christians have more limited dating options than lesbians do, or whether they face more prejudice from others about their faith than lesbians do about their sexuality. And one would perhaps have to assume that Claire, who tells a suicidal man that if he goes ahead he'll end up in Hell (Chapter 11), would offer similar advice to the lesbian heroine of Barrett's story. Nonetheless their feelings, in the case of one heroine about her religion, and in the other about her sexuality, make them hesitant, uncertain that they will be accepted for who they are. It seems to me that this is perhaps much rarer in other romances, where, although the characters may worry that they're not beautiful or rich enough, or that they lack some other quality (such as social status) these aren't such fundamental aspects of who the characters are, compared to one's faith or sexuality. Appearances can be changed - and there are plenty of heroines who, with a quick makeover, are rendered stunning. Both of these romances are about heroines who know that there is something about them which is non-negotiable, essential to who they are, and which any potential partner must not just accept, but also fully share, in order for the relationship to work.

Another of the short stories was Selah March's Dark of the Day, which is described as an 'Erotic Paranormal Romance'. What I found interesting was that this story dealt with suicide, one of the secondary issues in Pelican Point, but instead of the would-be-suicide being dissuaded by a discussion about God, Hell, fire and brimstone.... well, I'll let you read it. But it's interesting that both stories are very spiritual in their own way, both argue against suicide, and yet the methods of persuasion, the individuals doing the persuading and the theology behind the stories are very, very different. I wonder how many paranormal romances are, in fact, erotic Inspirational romances, just not Christian inspirational romances? Is New Age spirituality perhaps having an effect on the types of spirituality depicted in romance?

A theme that was at the heart of all of these romances was the characters' feelings about their own lovability. As Jenny Crusie has said:
Romance fiction is the most popular, elastic, exciting, and creative genre in publishing today, but it's also the hardest kind of fiction to write. All you have to do is convince the modern, jaded, ironic reader that your heroine and hero have not only fallen in love and surmounted all the barriers in their path, but that their love is unconditional and will last throughout time. (Crusie: Emotionally Speaking)
Believing that finding unconditional love is even possible for them is something that many of these lovers find a struggle. They don't believe that someone could love them despite certain aspects of their personalities, the truth about their pasts and/or their less-than-perfect bodies. In the erotic romances acceptance of, and enthusiastic participation in, the other's fantasies is an indication not just of sexual broadmindedness and physical compatibility, but of emotional connection and trust. In Charlene Teglia's short erotic vampire romance Night Rhythm, for example, the heroine thinks that:
it hadn't been a purely sexual fantasy. She'd felt like there was a bond between them, a connection that went far beyond the physical. She'd felt happy. Secure. Loved. She'd felt confident and relaxed, as if she could trust Valentine with anything, and that level of trust had led to the freedom to enjoy the physical without any reservations. [...] What man had she ever trusted enough to play kinky games with instead of sticking to basics?

While Pelican Point is extremely chaste (kisses only) and Amie Stuart's erotic romance The Big Girl's Guide to Buying Lingerie is not, the issue of acceptance and trust is of central importance to both. In Pelican Point the heroine has a very difficult relationship with her father, whose personality was not unlike the hero's father (now deceased) in TBGGTBL and the family background of the hero in Pelican Point reminds me somewhat of that of the heroine in TBGGTBL. The heroine of TBGGTBL thinks she's too fat, and the hero of Pelican Point thinks he's too disabled to find love. And of course, despite the obstacles that these secrets and worries place in the path, true love triumphs in the end. As Jade, the heroine of TBGGTBL says, 'Love isn’t about control, or making someone into what you want them to be, but about appreciating them for who and what they are' (297).

Despite the variety of sub-genres, then, it's clear that these romances have a lot in common beyond the focus on the romantic relationship and the happy endings. Whatever the sub-genre, romances seek to make sense of many of life's most challenging problems, particularly the doubts and fears that stop individuals finding true emotional intimacy.


  1. So glad you read the romance contributions to the ebook challenge! Thank you very much for your remarks on Night Rhythm. The emotional connection and trust between partners is such an important aspect of an erotic romance and I'm delighted that you saw it in mine. : )

  2. Given that I'd never read an erotic romance, but I had read discussions of what defines them as a sub-genre, I found it very interesting that all the short erotic romances written for the challenge demonstrated what Sylvia Day meant when she wrote that erotic romances are

    stories written about the development of a romantic relationship through sexual interaction. The sex is an inherent part of the story, character growth, and relationship development, and couldn’t be removed without damaging the storyline.

    Before reading them, I hadn't known how this would be done, but, in their different ways, the sex in the erotic romances did tell us a lot about the personality of the characters, their relationships and themes such as trust/risk. It ties in with something that Jenny Crusie wrote about action (though not specifically sex) in romance:

    the struggle to know and trust each other as the relationship develops, must be played out in action. There's a misconception that characters in romance novels don't have to do much besides fall in love and then think about it, and this misconception has led to a lot of interminable scenes where the heroine (less often the hero) sits and ponders her delight/misery/confusion/desire/rage. While some internal monologue is essential, it's a weak characterization and plot device because most thought is rationalization and review. Readers like to see emotion played out in movement on the page because they know that action is character.

    In the erotic romances written for the challenge it was often the case that the characters couldn't fully express themselves in words (often because they were held back by fears of inadequacy or rejection), so sexual contact was a way for them to 'speak' to each other. Then there was the way that participation in the other's sexual fantasies worked on an emotion level to build acceptance and trust. In addition, in your Night Rhythm where you write about vampires, the theme invites the reader to think about attitudes towards sex. For example, the way that the vampire has to be invited to cross the threshold provides parallels for how we think about sexual intimacy. The invitation can be about a place (i.e. a house) but also her mind (emotional intimacy), body (sexual/physical intimacy) and soul (permanent commitment to the relationship). The heroine makes choices about when she wants to let the vampire in to each of these areas, and although they are related, an invitation into one area isn't automatically an invitation into all the others. That convention of the vampire having to ask permission is really very interesting in the light of romance's frequent 'forced seductions'. If someone says 'no' and denies entry, the vampire can't simply force his way in. I'd imagine that how/if that convention is used/the meanings it acquires will vary from one vampire romance to another and maybe it's not really something that comes up in other texts, but it did seem significant in Night Rhythm, where Valentine must take care not to force Lisa to accept him: 'He had to temper it with caution, control himself. If he overwhelmed her, she might pull so far away he could never reach her again.'

    The vampire, with his connection with death (sex has often been linked to death, with orgasm being the 'little death') poses a risk. His bite, like the venereal diseases transmitted by sexual contact, often through blood, transforms/kills. Your vampire isn't portrayed in a negative way (which makes sense, since I'd imagine that writers of erotic romances don't have a negative attitude towards sex), but there is acknowledgment of the power and possible dangers of sex, because this vampire still carries that air of risk and danger that all vampires have.

    I suppose many people will read erotic romances for the thrill (just as many people read mainstream but 'hot'/'sexy' romances for that aspect of the story), but I get the impression that when done well, there should, as Sylvia Day says, be a lot more than that to an erotic romance.

    I did wonder if, because, as Sylvia adds, 'Happily Ever After is a REQUIREMENT to be an erotic romance', there could possibly, in some works, be a tendency to fall into the great sex = great relationship fallacy. I've noticed that in mainstream romances sometimes. It's the scenario where the characters fight a lot, don't have much in common, but nonetheless have great sex and presumably this is supposed to be enough to convince the reader that this couple really will have a HEA. But I don't think that's any more of a risk for erotic romance authors than it is for authors of any romance which includes sex. And I was very happy to see that you address this issue in another short story on your website, Third Time's the Charm. There the heroine says of her relationship with the hero that:

    "I want you back like I want a dozen donuts. It sounds like a good idea and the initial rush is fantastic, but then you're left with that sick feeling and the realization that you should have had a V-8."

    Clearly great sex alone isn't a solid basis for a relationship, at least not for this heroine. But confinement in an elevator (and the hero being physically inside the heroine's body, another confined, dark space) provides an opportunity for greater intimacy of a verbal kind. And I think it is clear that there's also a parallel being drawn between the enclosure of the elevator, and the way their relationship encloses, appears to be going somewhere, but has nonetheless got stuck. It takes talking, not just sex, to get things moving emotionally.

  3. j as in jennifer10 November, 2006 17:08

    Thanks for the link to "The Big Girl's Guide to Lingerie." Even though it's not something I would normally read because I have a bias against cowboys (having grown up around them) and Texas (our dear leader claiming it as home), it was interesting to me because I also met my man through the internet and I share the heroine's lack of glamour. Though it is a bit too bad that she made the hero so tall and handsome, because it blurs the fact that you can develop a crush on someone you've never met, never seen, simply from the personality transmitted with a keyboard. Well, I guess no one wants to see the scrappy heroine wind up with someone unattractive. But it does emphasize that feelings can be transmitted by mere words on a page. Like the romance genre itself.

  4. I'm glad you liked it, Jennifer. I thought it was really rather sweet. Obviously, being an erotic romance, it wasn't 'sweet' in the sense of 'kisses only', which is sometimes what people mean when they describe a romance as 'sweet', but the characters were so shy and tentative when you got to know them/they got to know each other. And they really grew in confidence.

    it is a bit too bad that she made the hero so tall and handsome, because it blurs the fact that you can develop a crush on someone you've never met, never seen, simply from the personality transmitted with a keyboard

    Ah, but when they actually met in person, it wasn't love at first sight at all, was it. If anything they were disappointed when they met, so they didn't fall in love with each other because of the externals. The attraction was obviously very strong and was there because of all their online exchanges. And the hero did have a receding hairline, though maybe it was more something he worried about than something which was immediately obvious to everyone else.

    I guess no one wants to see the scrappy heroine wind up with someone unattractive. But it does emphasize that feelings can be transmitted by mere words on a page. Like the romance genre itself.

    Poor Cyrano. He had the words, his friend had the looks, and it's easier to borrow someone else's words than their looks. At least in the modern film version by Steve Martin, Roxanne, the man with the nose gets the girl.

  5. j as in jennifer10 November, 2006 21:53

    At least in the modern film version by Steve Martin, Roxanne, the man with the nose gets the girl.

    Hooray for the Hollywood ending! :)

  6. Laura, I want to send everybody who thinks that erotic romance is thinly disguised porn to this link! Thank you for your insightful commentary. And it's very true that great sex does not mean automatic happy ending, it's not an easy out for the author.

  7. I'm very flattered you think I've been insightful, Charlene. I was a bit hesitant to write about erotic romances because I'd not read any, just as I felt a bit cautious about making comments about inspirational romances, because I hadn't read any of them either: these sub-genres just aren't available in my local library. The ebook challenge gave me the opportunity to compare some of the theory/general descriptions of erotic romances with actual texts, and I've very much appreciated being able to do that, not just because I like reading free ebooks ;-) but also because it gives me a better sense of how both inspirational romance and erotic romance fit into the romance genre as a whole.

  8. I'm very late but I wanted to add my thanks for reading and posting such an interesting discussion. Out of all the manuscripts I've written, TBGG is probably my favorite. *blush*

  9. Amie, thank you. And as you can see, it wasn't just me who liked it, Jennifer did too, and she can be quite hard to please (I mean that in a good way. Jennifer has very high standards, and Eric and I had to work very hard to convince her that Crusie's Bet Me had hidden depths. Even now I'm not sure we really convinced her ;-) ).

  10. Wow, am I ever late with finding this post. Sorry about that. Serves me right for never googling myself, I guess.

    Thank you for your kind comments about Dark Of The Day. That story is very close to my heart, and the positive response I've received means a lot to me.

    I love your insightful commentary. Now that I've found you, I can't wait to read the rest of your posts.


  11. Welcome, Selah! I'm always very pleased when authors turn up here to comment on their own work, but I certainly don't expect it. We're not a very big blog, and I know many authors are extremely busy people.

    I'm glad you liked my comments. One of the things that I'm really enjoying about interactions with authors on here is that I'm getting confirmation (or not, as the case may be ;-) ) of my analysis. Makes a big change from when I was looking at works which were about 500 years old. The authors couldn't answer back, which meant I would never find out if I was 'right'. Of course, some people argue that it's the reader's response that matters, but I think it's very interesting to know how much of what the reader picks up on is there because the author deliberately put it in there, and how much is the reader's doing.

  12. Laura,

    I've had some very interesting responses to Dark Of The Day. Some folks look at Thann and see an Angel of the Lord in the most Judeo-Christian sense. Others emailed me wondering if Thann was lying about being "death personified," or if he was actually evil or demonic. (THAT certainly gives the story a new spin.)

    Given that angels, or angel-like beings, are a fixture in several world religions, I'm comfortable with calling Thann an angel, although I'm also open to other interpretations of my own work. I did drop clues here and there -- the rustle of wings as he departs at the end of the attempted suicide scene, for example. On a few occasions, when asked point blank "What is Thann?" I've answered by asking in return, "Why do we assume only demons can possess human beings? Why not their opposite number, angels?"

    But, as I said, I'm open to other interpretations. I meant the story to be both uplifting and to spark questions in the reader, and I'm glad I've been successful. I blush to admit that even now, when I read it (looking for the odd typo or formatting glitch that alway seem to escape my notice) the ending makes me teary. But I'm a big, sentimental goof that way. ;)

    Thank you again for your remarks. It's such a compliment to be discussed in a community like this one. I've spent hours reading the posts here, and I can't wait to read more.

    Have a lovely weekend.


  13. Thann didn't give me the impression that he was evil, whatever he was.

    It seems to me that the ambiguity's an advantage in many ways, because if you'd made it clear precisely what sort of being he was then you'd probably have had to do a big lot of info-dump to clarify exactly what sort of angel he was (i.e. which tradition's views of angels, if you were adhering strictly to that one or mixing it with others). It also gets people thinking.

    I'm so glad you've been enjoying reading the posts.