Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Who Writes Women’s Books?
I was thinking about how romance comic books historically were written and drawn almost entirely by men. And still are. An occasional female has managed to make her way into the comic book business, but precious few have stayed for long. See Trina Robbins’ roundup of women artists in the comics for more details.
It was also common but mistaken knowledge when I was growing up that all romance novels were written by men. (Occasionally I still hear it today from cynical types not in touch with the current publishing scene.) I don’t know where this nonsense originated. I know there were certain male writers who wrote many, many books under female pseudonyms, such as Dan Ross as Marilyn Ross for Gothics (of course it turns out that his wife, Marilyn, helped him enormously, especially in getting correct female point of view). Various more obscure romantic novelists of the 1960s and 1970s were men writing under female pseudonyms. Sometimes gay men, if the truth be known. But Mary Stewart, Dorothy Eden, Victoria Holt, and Phyllis Whitney (who by the way, is still alive at 103), all preeminent writers for women, were definitely real women. Georgette Heyer, who singlehandedly was the Regency subgenre in her lifetime, was a woman. And Daphne du Maurier, that grande dame of the “had I but known” Gothic tale Rebecca, was a woman. For gosh sakes, Margaret Mitchell, famed author of Gone with the Wind, was a woman, too!
So where did this idea that men write all the women’s books come from?
The authors I’ve mentioned all were published first in hardcover. I’ve heard that the early writers who wrote paperback originals often were men, and that there was a lot of switching between genres. One week, a hack writer would do an adventure tale of a man being captured by the luscious, sexually aggressive Amazon women of some unknown civilization in a dark continent. The next week, he’d write a big city noir murder mystery with a tough guy detective who constantly encounters “real blondes.” (You know what that means, don’t you? It was the sly 1950s way of saying that the guy had sex with the gal, and saw that her pubic hair was as blonde as the hair on her head.) And the third week of the month, the writer would write a rip-roaring western. The fourth week he’d pen a sweet romance about the girl next door who can’t make up her mind between the earnest but bad-tempered boy next door and that smooth night club owner who wines and dines her. Of course she chooses the guy without the money. (Flashy guys make bad husbands is the subtext.) Maybe these versatile writers became insider publishing gossip. Or maybe, like Dan Ross, they received a bit of publicity and the general public began to think that all romance writers were men writing under female pseudonyms.
There were plenty of women writing original paperbacks at the same time. Elsie Lee, who did Gothics, contemporary romantic suspense, and Regencies, comes to mind. And Arlene Hale, a prolific writer of nurse romances and sweet romances, not to mention that she probably ghost wrote some of the last novels purportedly by Emilie Loring (which were published long after Mrs. Loring died, and clearly are written by several different uncredited authors). I’m sure I’m missing some prominent female paperback novelists of the 1950s-1970s, and of course I do not count any Harlequin authors because at the time, none of them was American. I’m not sure if any even was Canadian. If anyone knows, please tell me.
Today, most writers of women’s books are women. I’ve met them, and you’ve probably read a lot of publicity about them. Multi-bestselling author Nora Roberts definitely is a woman, as you can tell from her web site. Most active romance writers have web sites. As for male presence, there are several husband-and-wife teams writing for the women’s fiction market, including category romances, and they do it openly. Lynda and Dan Trent come to mind. (Sorry, I couldn’t find a web site for them.) Their books are usually sold under a female pseudonym, but the co-authorship is plainly stated in the interior pages. And there are some female authors who get writing contributions from their husbands but do not necessarily give them shared billing. I won’t mention who they are since they obviously do not want to tell the world. As to Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, the new romance writing team making publicity/writing seminar stops all across the country, they live in different states and apparently are just writing partners, not the more typical intimate duo. Janet Evanovich and Stephen J. Cannell have just signed to do a similar team-up, so we can expect more of these strictly business relationships. Other than these anomalies, pretty much every romance novel you see published today is written by a woman.
It turns out that women write women’s books.
P.S. That Evanovich-Cannell team-up never happened after all.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
What did Madame Bovary want, and what do you want?
Madame Bovary was not a romance, but it always felt like a romance—a doomed one—to me. An important piece of mid 19th century French literature by Gustave Flaubert, among other things this novel showed how an obscure young woman raised on romantic dreams of glamour could completely ruin her life in search of it. Emma Bovary really didn’t have a chance, stuck in a world in which women could only rise through marriage or sexual liaisons. Modern America is different…or is it?
We still have plenty of women today who have Madame Bovary’s deadly fixation, the yearning to be the belle of the ball in an empty world of glitter. It isn’t just the wannabe actresses and models. Think of the Bridezillas turning wedding celebrations into tense, tantrum-filled pageants in which the bride is the über beauty contest winner. Or the compulsive shoppers who constantly outfit themselves with clothes (which, like Emma Bovary, they can’t afford) suitable to the late Princess Diana’s social schedule.
In most of these visions, there is a central male character. But he’s more a prop, like a Ken doll in a Barbie set, than a real man. The princess can’t dance alone at the fabulous ball. Or walk down the aisle in her bridal finery to meet no one. So there is a man. But he’s a shadowy figure, well dressed, maybe handsome, but essentially empty. This is the common playacting of little girls. But grown girls, women, still think this way. They look for the show of romance, not the substance.
Compare this image of the glittering social event, the beautiful gown, and the handsome bridegroom doll to real life relationships in all their potential. To the first meeting of two strangers, the wonder at suddenly looking into someone’s eyes and seeing a reflection of your true self. To the long walks or long talks with a person who gets you. To loving, transcendent sex, not just going-through-the-motions sex or getting-yours sex. And then there are all the joys of being with someone who cares, day after day, year after year, through all the stages of life. Who, with a look, can share the full emotional depth of ineffable moments, experiences that language simply cannot describe.
Romance is an adventure that has both an exterior and an interior. Too many women mistake the one for the other. To be fair, some Bridezillas are trying to live out the fantasy romance just for one day of their lives. But the next act in the play is being a Stepford Wife, isn’t it? Or being poor Emma Bovary, always in search of that elusive romantic image, instead of its substance.
So, here’s the question: In that secret place in your mind, are you dreaming of an unreal, gaudy world of fancy gowns and spectacle? Or are you dreaming of a man, a real human, with whom you can be real when the party lights are off?
Thursday, October 19, 2006
A Bit of Romance Comic History
In the mid-1950s, faced with ruin after the congressional investigations of EC Comics and the salacious accusations Dr. Frederic Wertham made in his book, Seduction of the Innocent, the major comic book companies decided to self-censor, establishing the Comics Code Authority. A rich vein of dramatic, true-to-life stories were abandoned, and romance comics became quite bland and innocent, tiresomely reiterating themes insisting that women should pursue marriage above all—in other words, the typical party line of the 1950s era. Cover art, which had been mostly photographs in the early romance comics, became equally bland. In fact, mid-1950s romance comics are notable chiefly because they were so boring. By the end of the decade, the publishing of most romance comics ceased, presumably due to lack of sales.
DC Comics, even though left with the field largely to itself, was constantly updating its image to try to hold on to readers. For a while there was even a separate romance comic logo—National Romance Group—on the covers, and prominent house ads were run in the mags encouraging readers to buy the entire line of titles.
As the 1960s opened, DC was actively trying to invigorate the moribund romance comic genre. DC bought up titles from other companies, including Heart Throbs (from Quality Comics) and Young Love and Young Romance (both from Prize Comics). Soon DC Comics had a big line-up of romance comics. Dramatic and handsome cover art was done by people who would go on to fame as superhero artists, notably John Romita and Gene Colan. Dynamic covers were matched with beautifully drawn stories.
But the themes didn’t change until DC tried romance serials: Nurse Mary Robin kept falling for various doctors and patients. At the end of each story, it all came to nothing, of course. Sometimes, she was in the arms of a man who by the next issue, had mysteriously vanished and was never mentioned again, but often, she was tearfully saying goodbye to love. Airline stewardess Bonnie Taylor had similar serial experiences, falling in love with a Scot from a Brigadoon-like village, a doomed fisherman, a soldier with post-traumatic stress syndrome (he mistakes her for his lost love!), and so on all over the world before finally finding true love with an airline pilot. A Hollywood starlet, April O’Day, kept falling for unsuitable men, like older actors.
Then there was the advice columnist, Amy Ames, who somehow became directly involved with the lives of the girls who wrote to her, and often had some romantic adventure herself as part of it. These soap opera-style stories could be read separately or in series. Each issue would feature another story about the same heroine and a different guy. A lot of fantasy was involved; sometimes the heroine and her new love interest barely exchanged a word, just embraced. All the series eventually ended in a happily ever after that was no more or less than some of the individual chapters. In other words, no big wedding finale. (I don’t have all the comics, so I’m guessing that Amy Ames lived happily ever after.) It was all very innocent, of course; a kiss or two was the most that happened.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Will Trade Sex for Shoes
A joke has been going around the Internet that features a series of flow charts explaining what a man can do to try to obtain sex from a woman, and how nothing works, he gets no sex, until he finally buys her designer shoes. It’s pretty funny.
Designer shoes have become a big deal in our culture recently. I think I know how. The popular TV show, “Sex and the City,” featured a heroine, Carrie, who was nuts over expensive shoes. She had an entire shoe closet. She even got mugged for them once. (Just as well. They looked terrible with that dress. Actually, that dress looked terrible, period.)
A certain kind of very high heeled, pointy-toed, usually red shoe even has a name: F**k-me shoes. You get the point: Do not engage me in business or intellectual discussions; take me to bed. I once saw a woman shopping in a discount store (Wal-Mart, to be precise) wearing those shoes. In all other respects, she looked like a normal young woman out with her husband and two young children buying necessities. But those towering red pointy stilettos said: “I am not just a wife and mother. I have another life. Maybe I’m even a stripper. I am powerful because I am sexy.” Whew!
A decade or so before this high-heeled shoe thing, there was an anti-heels thing going on. Actually, what happened was that New York City had a transit strike and a lot of people had to walk to work. The NYC pavement is very hard. The whole city is built on granite, which doesn’t help. So fashionable women stuck on the upper west side or the lower east side trudged miles to work, but they wore sneakers to do it. In pointless imitation of New Yorkers, other women in other cites wore sneakers to work and changed at the office, too. Well, that couldn’t last. How many pairs of sneakers does a woman need? Even an athlete? Only a relative few, because all sneakers create pretty much the same mood. But heels—ah, heels can be different for every single reason a woman leaves the house.
Meanwhile, black became the de rigeur costume in the big city. Whereas before, women only dressed in black for funerals, cocktail parties, and to work the perfume counter at Macy’s, now women were wearing all black, all the time. Black looks good on some people; on others, it looks terrible. But slaves to fashion wore that black, to prove they were fashionable, or professional, or young. Whatever the black clothes were supposed to mean, they drew a distinct line between colorful suburban dressing and sober city garb, that’s for sure.
And then a funny thing happened. Women started accessorizing the black clothing with colorful, impractical, silly little shoes. Glaringly impractical, very high-heeled shoes. Nasty, red, F**k-me shoes. Without admitting they were getting tired of black, women simply transferred their desire for color, originality, and fun to their shoes. We all know what happened then. Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo, Prada, and a lot of other designers have cashed in on women’s suddenly revived focus on shoes. “Sex and the City” just helped tell the world.
I went to the Manolo Blahnik shop in Manhattan a couple of years ago and examined his shoes carefully. Aside from them having kicky designs, arty ideas, or just plain expensive crocodile leather (which was hard, not soft), I did not see a shoe that would last if one actually had to walk anywhere in it. The soles are very thin. They are meant to be worn from a limo to a club, and then back to the limo. Totally impractical. I shudder to imagine wearing them on the ultra-hard NYC pavement.
But practical shoes are never going to be important to women as long as economic inequality keeps them in competition with each other for men. We need every bit of weaponry possible to vie for the richest, handsomest, sexiest, and most powerful men. How do we do it? We cripple our feet with high heels. Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid (the original one, not the Disney G-rated version) was willing to walk on knives (i.e., accept horrible pain in her feet), just to have a chance with the handsome prince—a prince who was not worthy of her adoration. Short women admit to wearing very high heels just to be taller. Why? Because height gets you noticed. They’ll pay later, but now, they’ll mess up their feet in order to look more like the American ideal of the tall, thin woman.
And speaking of thin, the wonderful thing is your shoes usually fit you whether you’ve been spending your nights in a rock star’s bed or in front of the TV with Ben and Jerry. Have no life? Get shoes. Have a great life? Get even more shoes. They work whether you are up or down. Heels always hurt my feet. But I guess in the long run these shoes hurt less than men do. And you can kick them off with far less trouble.
So maybe giving her shoes is the perfect way to woo a woman. It shows her that her man sees her as sexy, powerful, and fun. And the right size. Good message. Maybe sex will happen tonight after all.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Write Something Good
At romance writing conferences, some author usually stands up and humbly asks the editors “What would you like me to write?” The editors always tell her vaguely and rather helplessly to write something “good.” Everybody goes away frustrated, yet what they want is no secret: Authors look for direction, and editors look for imagination.
The author’s lack of vision is depressing. When an author asks an editor what to write, she’s asking the editor to do an essential part of her own job as a writer. It’s up to the author to create new personalities, new situations, and new angles. True, she’s doing it in a vacuum, largely unaware of sales figures or genre trends. (Although the Internet is a big help.) And some authors don’t read much, except research material. The authors are depending on instinct, so they look to the editors for advice.
But though the editors may have vast market knowledge (and then again, maybe not, since sales figures sometimes dribble in to editorial divisions), editors also are operating on instinct. They can never know for certain what the public will enjoy tomorrow, only what it enjoyed yesterday. Sometimes editors take a chance on a manuscript simply because a gut feeling says the time is right. But sometimes the book doesn’t find its audience right away. It is labeled a mistake until reading tastes shift and it is reissued as part of an established trend. (Think of all the people who wrote vampire stories before the paranormal trend arose. Any editor who published one was stepping out on a limb.)
Meanwhile, if the editor isn’t willing to take a risk, she’s tempted to accept a story but fiddle with it to make it more like what is already out and popular, what is recognizably of a genre. If the author wants to create a story similar to a particular trend, then the editor’s suggestions for changes may help. The editor does usually know more about what will go over with an already established audience than an author does. But what if the author is trying to do something a little different, and the editor thinks it’s a mistake, or doesn’t recognize this as a breakthrough? Then the editor and author argue over what to change.
Who wins this battle is largely decided by who holds the upper hand. The less financial or artistic recognition an author has, the less likely she is to have full control of her words. And just to get published, many writers will willingly cede control. This isn’t necessarily a fatal mistake. Some of the finest literary writers have been materially aided by their editors, so why not romance writers? Unfortunately, romance writers are basically commercial writers, who have a very modest view of themselves (less so lately, since we all know that romances account for over 50% of all fiction sold). They don’t claim their works are literary masterpieces to be etched in stone. This modesty makes them too open to manipulation and persuasion. And to artistic suicide. They are too willing to put themselves in a subservient position, too willing to forget about art and be little more than writers for hire. They often define themselves as contracted craft workers instead of as independent artists.
Yet no author does her best work while writing under someone else’s orders. And too many romance writers are being milked dry as they replay the same stories over and over with new gimmicks and new character names. Some people envy the fabled authors who can write a book a month, ignoring the reality that burnout awaits these marvels. Audience burnout, too. If these authors don’t develop in new directions they could find themselves out in the cold.
How far out in the cold? Many years ago, Gothic romances and nurse romances enjoyed a popular boom. But like all booms, those ended. After years of writing about distraught young governesses being attacked in the dark corridors of some ancient pile, many authors couldn’t wrap their heads around any other kind of romance. Meanwhile, the writers telling and re-telling Nurse Nancy stories (and I confess it; I once read a book called World’s Fair Nurse, whose only reason for being was to cash in on the world’s fair as a locale), well, these writers were not sure how to turn their girl-next-door nurse heroines, basically girls who could not afford to go to college, into characters who would appeal to the baby boom’s huge college graduate population.
And then sex arrived. Romances went from having a kiss or two in a whole book to opening the bedroom door for every detail. An entire generation of writers suddenly needed to convert to a new paradigm. The trouble is, writing in a genre can get an author comfortable with crutches and blinders. (Sounds awful.) When the market changed, many authors simply could not convert from their Gothic or nurse romance cliches. Some authors complained that the new sexy romances did not have stories. Few wanted to face the fact that they had gotten used to expressing themselves in one mode only. They lacked creative agility, perhaps in part because they had followed their editors’ advice so carefully.
The waves of audience enthusiasm continued to roll over writers. Historical romances dominated for a while. Regency romances rose to great popularity. Contemporary romances made a big hit. At their height, 100 paperback books were being published every month in series featuring contemporary romance. By now, they, too, have become passe, although a few lines linger on, sometimes healthy, sometimes not. In today’s writing market, there are more individual opportunities, such as paranormal, fantasy, women’s fiction, chick lit, and many other variations. But it doesn’t matter what the market is like if an author is unwilling or unable to keep changing and growing.
Yes, certain favorite authors are prized for doing the same thing over and over again. And their rut may be big enough, their following large enough, that it seems not to matter. Readers probably do want each Sue Grafton mystery to be just like the last one. Or each Diana Palmer romance. Or each Stephen King horror story. But it’s an artistic mistake to rewrite the same book, and the best writers, genre or otherwise, make an effort to find something new to say. Some, like Elizabeth George, even make sure they say it a different way each time. It took me until the end of one of her British police mysteries to realize that one narrator’s storyline had not been not running simultaneously with another’s. Cool. I love it when a writer works extra hard to make reading her book a unique experience.
But what about writers, maybe beginners, maybe just moderate sellers, whose careers are much more at the whim of the market? When a major market shift occurs and leaves some authors hanging, some blame the editors who told them what to write. And some editors blame the writers who continue to turn out the same old stories over and over again even though the audience has moved on.
Fairly or unfairly, final responsibility for the writing belongs to the writer. It’s up to the author to decide what she is willing to do, as well as what she is trying to accomplish. Whether defining herself as an artist or as thoroughly commercial, an author needs to be constantly new, fresh, imaginative. She cannot expect an editor to feed her new ideas. She must develop them herself. She cannot expect the audience to enjoy the same story she wrote last year. She must write something genuinely new. An author who doesn’t change and grow skimps on herself as an artist. And eventually she has little to offer an audience, either. It’s not nice, but it’s the truth. So, authors, write something “good.”
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Red-Headed Stepchild to the RWA
I’d never heard of the term “red-headed stepchild” before a friend of mine started editing a professional wrestling magazine and sought in vain for any kind of cooperation within that industry. He and his magazine were treated like a red-headed stepchild, he told me. Ignored, pushed aside, not given a fair share of the family (industry) resources.
New publishing ventures in the romance world are often in that same situation. Press releases sent to the major romance industry publications do not generate any editorial interest. Instead, they get shunted to advertising departments, where the new publisher is handed a consolation prize—an opportunity to buy ads. Offers to go to conferences and make presentations are either refused or again directed to the ad department. The RWA (Romance Writers of America, and where have you been?) simply won’t talk to a new publisher that doesn’t have a year’s track record. Huh? If you’re brand new, how can you have a track record?
It used not to be this way. New romance publishers were welcomed at romance conferences, and specifically at the RWA conferences. Let me tell you about a few publisher presentations that I went to at the big conventions. One time it was a company that was going to do films of romance novels. They sponsored a luncheon at the con, and at each place at the table was a pair of sunglasses with the glass in the shape of a heart. Cute, and very 1980s. I may still have them. Then there was the presentation for Torch and Torchlite, two digest-sized magazines. Then there was a company that did tabloid-style, photo-illustrated contemporary romances (not fumetti). These romance publishers all went bottom up. But to my knowledge, none of them were fly by night. The crooks of the world generally want your money; they don’t want to spend their own on publicity.
All these publishers were allowed in at the major romance conferences and were able to alert the thousands of RWA members attending that they existed. And the RWA members could make their own individual evaluations of the likelihood of success or failure, and decide whether to do business with these publishers. Or not.
So what happened? Why, did the RWA in 1997 adopt a set of criteria to determine whom it considers a legitimate publisher? Why does the RWA now specifically refuse to allow “non-recognized publishers” to make presentations or sponsor anything at their annual national conference? Why does the RWA treat new romance publishers like red-headed stepchildren?
Two important technological advances have changed the face of publishing: The Internet and Print on Demand. It appears that the RWA has decided it must protect its members from both.
We all know what the Internet has done. An epublishing industry has sprung up to capitalize on the Internet’s potential connection to millions of people worldwide. Because little or no capital, and zero editing, design, production, printing, advertising, or distribution expertise are required, anyone can set up as a publisher. Whether they hew to accepted publishing industry standards, or whether they are able to sell books on the Internet is a different story. All is not rosy in epublishing, although in theory the opportunities are limitless. Some epublishers want their authors to pay for their own printing. And royalties have been reported in such tiny dollar amounts that the epublishing industry’s standard model contract created by EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Connection, an authors association) even requires that when royalties reach $10 in a calendar quarter, they must be paid promptly to the author. Ten dollars!
At the same time, Print on Demand means that anyone can arrange to have an economical number of books printed. If an author does it herself, she thus avoids a garage filled with copies of a book she can’t sell to anyone but her relatives. But she still has paid someone to print a book instead of finding an existing publisher who believes in her writing, edits it, and pays her for the privilege of publishing it. When the author pays for any part of the printing process, most respectable people in the publishing industry consider this to be vanity or subsidy publishing, not real publishing. And vanity presses are flourishing through Print on Demand, conning the unwary or the impatient author into paying for publication. Just as dishonest editing and agenting services of all kinds continue to exist.
It’s decent of the RWA to want to protect its members from subsidy and vanity publishers, many of whom are either unscrupulous or inept or both. And maybe it’s even necessary, given that the RWA makes no requirement of publishing experience before a romance writer may join the organization. Potentially, a very large percentage of the RWA membership is wet behind the ears.
At the same time, the RWA is creating a paradox that does its members a disservice and harms new romance publishers. Because a publisher must have been in business for a year, must not charge its authors for publishing their books, must have sold 1,500 hardcover copies or 5,000 copies of a specific romance in any other format (not an aggregate total of many different novels), and must have national distribution-—all reasonable enough proofs of legitimacy per se-—because of these requirements, no new publisher gets substantial access to the RWA membership until after it has already found an alternate source of writers.
Yet getting in on the ground floor of a new publisher is a priceless advantage to a writer. And getting access to writers who love and understand romance is a priceless advantage to a new romance publisher. The two were made to go together. But instead, the RWA now treats all newcomers like red-headed stepchildren, basically ignoring them and leaving them to find their own road. RWA members whose publishing credits are with non-recognized publishers are pretty angry at this situation. I know; I’ve heard them bitterly complaining.
Possibly as a response to members’ anger, the RWA has decided to stop even considering publishers for recognition. Instead, the organization plans to reevaluate their evaluation process. Make that red-headed stepchild to an unwieldy bureaucracy.
I wonder if the RWA even realizes that by avoiding contact with new publishers in their infancy, the RWA loses a key opportunity to influence them on the behalf of writers. If the practices or contract terms these publishers come up with unaided are not to the eventual taste of the RWA, any motion to correct must come after the fact instead of during the publishers’ earliest and most malleable period. By the time a publisher is accepted as recognized by the RWA, the publisher has established its way of doing business, probably has felt the effects of the RWA cold shoulder, and frankly no longer cares what the RWA thinks about anything.
Well, the stepmom never gets it about the red-headed stepchild’s worth, does she?
P.S. The RWA has changed its tune since I wrote this one.
Monday, May 07, 2007
The Tudors: Truth or Lies?
A young, handsome actor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, is currently playing Henry VIII of England as a young, handsome king on the Showtime television series, “The Tudors.” It’s a startling new angle for the oft-told tale. It seeks to erase the classic image of Henry VIII as a fat, middle-aged monarch, an image made famous by Hans Holbein’s brilliant portraits and carried into the 20th century by several movies and TV miniseries.
So far this new version is getting half the facts right, and half of then wrong. In his youth, Henry was handsome, athletic, and a devil with the women. He went at life with great gusto; it was always a party when Henry was around. He even wrote poetry and composed songs. So in this series Henry is sexy and charismatic. That’s fine and it’s the truth, too.
But there are lies in this TV series. In it, Henry has a sister Margaret who is forced to marry the old king of Portugal and promptly smothers him with a pillow. How jolly! How completely untrue! Wrong sister! Wrong decade! Wrong old king!
What’s going on here? Somehow the name and the actions of Henry’s favorite sister, Mary, have been fouled up and conflated with the name of his other sister, Margaret, who married the king of Scotland. The real Margaret just happened to be the grandmother of Mary Queen of Scots, so if this series is going to continue into the next generation, things could get awkward historically. Why? Because the real Mary Tudor became the grandmother of Lady Jane Grey, a different claimant to the English throne. And Lady Jane sure wasn’t Queen Mary’s sister. Whoops.
But what’s more depressing from a romance standpoint is that Mary Tudor’s true story is a genuine romance that actually ended with a happily ever after. She dutifully married the old king of France, who promptly died all on his own. Then while still in France, she secretly married Charles Brandon, Henry’s good jousting and hunting buddy with whom she had grown up and with whom she was already in love. The new king of France even helped them. This did not please Henry, but he eventually forgave them after exacting a huge fine. Mary and Charles returned to England and remained popular figures at court for many years. The story was retold in Charles Major’s When Knighthood Was in Flower and has been the subject of a couple of romantic movies, too. And it really happened.
So why tell lies about it? I don’t know the answer to that one, other than to speculate that the series writer wanted to shape Henry’s story differently from how it unfolded in real life. There is a line between history and fiction that has been repeatedly crossed by writers, and not just recently on TV miniseries. William Shakespeare’s “Richard III” is now considered to be a politically inspired hatchet job from beginning to end. But most people still think that Richard III murdered all those people Shakespeare had him killing. Sometimes writers want to make a real person nobler than he was, as when Friedrich Schiller wrote the play, “Don Carlos” and fabricated an idealistic personality that the historical Don Carlo (the mentally deficient son of the king of Spain, circa 1560) did not have. And then Verdi turned that play into an intensely moving opera that was equally historically inaccurate, and so on. “Alt history”—alternate history—science fiction is quite a popular subgenre. In such stories, writers openly explore worlds in which key historical facts are different, for instance, that the south won the Civil War instead of the north. But alternate history based on a cavalier treatment of historical fact—very common in movies and TV shows—is another kettle of fish. It’s historical fiction, and it purports to be the truth while twisting the truth, sometimes only a little bit, but sometimes almost beyond recognition. Hence Margaret instead of Mary, and Portugal instead of France.
Where to draw the line between history and fiction, while still telling a good story, has usually been a matter of altering the mundane real events of history into something consistently dramatic. It’s hardly necessary to do that with Henry VIII, who led a fascinating life (we’re still talking about him 500 years after his birth). Even though we know what will happen to Anne Boleyn, we are mesmerized all over again as the awful tragedy unfolds. Do we need the lies to make this a spectacular story?
Recently, author Phillippa Gregory has been very successful with a series of novels about the Tudors that she explicitly admits are not always strictly historically accurate. “It probably didn’t happen quite this way, but it could have,” is basically her rationale. (Not a direct quote.) We’re so used to this approach in the media that we all think Henry VIII was born fat and middle aged. Why? Because there was a Charles Laughton film, “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” that gave the public wide familiarity with the Holbein portrait. Which is the lie that this current TV series is trying to undo. The fat old king has to be turned back into the sexy young king. Are we going in circles, or what?
What surprises me is that with all this meddling with the truth nobody bothers to just go all out and give the Henry VIII story a happy ending. I mean, why not? It’s just a gloss on history, not the real thing, so why not have Katherine of Aragon accept a polite divorce? And why not have Anne Boleyn give birth to a son instead of getting beheaded? Why is it okay to tamper with and obscure a real romance and yet leave in a real tragedy?
Friday, April 27, 2007
More on Memorable Romance Heroines
What is it about a romance that keeps people reading it generations after it was published? Even centuries? The three romances I talked about last time, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights, were all eventually enshrined as literature. But so were Pamela by Samuel Richardson (the first English novel and the first English romance, too), and Evelina (the first English novel by a woman) by Fanny Burney. Only English majors read them anymore, but most romance readers have read the other three. Why, despite the distance of time and the changes in social ways, and even the foreignness of reading about a woman from another country, why does the plight of Jane Eyre still burn in our imaginations?
Why is it that the best-selling romances of 100 years ago, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall by Charles Major (they did a Mary Pickford movie about it, that’s how popular that romance was), or Janice Meredith (did you know that its socialite author, Paul Leicester Ford, was murdered by his brother?), or To Have and To Hold (Mary Johnston’s finest story features a villain unselfconsciously named Lord Carnal) no longer capture the imagination? I recommend all three, but they aren’t likely to be found in every library, let alone in many bookstores.
What about The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy? Or the even more swashbuckling romances of Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood and Scaramouche among them? All have been made into movies, so millions more people have been made aware of them. Have you read them?
Actually, although I have read at least twenty obscure books by Sabatini (my library had a complete set), I never read Scaramouche. And nothing I have encountered as an adult has urged me to repair that omission. Romance readers and writers do not refer to it. Maybe because the point of view was male, not female?
Two other books published during that same period, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, keep being referenced by romance readers and writers. These books are still being read, despite being 70 plus years old. Their heroines are still being talked about. In fact, in the romance world, Gone with the Wind is often looked upon as the classic. Personally, I tried to read it years ago and got turned off and I haven’t been back. But most romance writers have opinions about Scarlett O’Hara, a standout heroine if ever there was one. Even having never read the book or seen the movie, I know that she is a memorable combination of strengths and weaknesses. Sooner or later, I’m going to read that book, because people keep talking about her.
Then we get Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, and a heroine of a different stripe. Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Cathy Earnshaw, and Scarlett O’Hara were strong women. In Rebecca, we get a protagonist who is such a total wuss that She Doesn’t Even Have a Name. The author cannot any more clearly tell the reader that this character, the second wife, is merely a conduit for the story and has no importance in it. And it’s so true. And so necessary, because who else but a naive stranger would think of Max de Winter as anything but a loser? His wife was screwing around on him with everybody, and he stood by and pretended that it wasn’t happening, secretly humiliated for years. And then he finally murdered her, only to discover that she even orchestrated this worm-turning action. Yep. A total loser. But the second wife doesn’t see him as that, which is why we need her as the narrator, to imbue with tale with some of the rosy hue of romance. The story really is about Rebecca, a larger-than-life personality whose hold on people even after her death is startling. Like Cathy from Wuthering Heights, Rebecca lives life on her own terms, refusing to behave the way society and morality dictate. She’s probably the first modern antiheroine. Still, following that old novelistic (and societal) standard that any woman who does not maintain sexual purity must be punished, this bad girl ends up with a medical death sentence that she turns into a convoluted husband-assisted suicide-as-murder.
What so plainly characterizes both Scarlett and Rebecca is their determination to have life their way. They don’t quite achieve that goal, at least not permanently. But romance readers keep going back to them, because the sheer passion of such determination is heady. Written in an era during which explicit sexuality was not legal to describe, the burning selfishness at the core of these two heroines stands in for sexual expression, too. That’s probably another reason why they still stand out. There’s enough symbolism in Rebecca to keep a college English lit class talking at length. It remains to be seen if these two novels will become the staples of school reading lists (let me know if they’re on yours). But it’s a sure bet that women will continue reading them for a long time to come.
Monday, April 23, 2007
We talk an awful lot about romantic heroes in romance blogs. But we don’t say a huge amount about the heroines, except maybe the ones who are Too Stupid to Live. Well, that’s another column. I got to thinking about romance heroines who made a big impression, and why. Of course what first came to mind were the classic 19th century romance novels, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights. Each established a memorable scenario that has been the basis for many romance novels since then. (I’m assuming you’ve read all of them, so I’ll be mentioning plot points that are spoilers.)
In Pride and Prejudice, the heroine is intelligent, observant, and underneath much polite and humorous behavior, outraged by the maneuverings that other women perform or society forces them to perform in order to get husbands. Elizabeth Bennet is angry at seeing her best friend sell out by marrying a nincompoop. She’s even angrier that her sister suffers because of the machinations of her rivals for the hand of another, only slightly more bearable nincompoop (yes, Bingley is amiable, but he’s still notably light on brains). So when Darcy has the gall to act as if he is doing her a favor by confessing his love, Elizabeth lets him have it. And we all adore her for it, though eventually she and we realize that Darcy is actually ah heroic fellow and worthy of her love. Elizabeth Bennet may be a woman of her times, but her intelligence and honesty speak to all times. It’s a simple story, but by the end the reader is sure that the heroine has found her perfect man. This is the romance as comedy of manners with some high emotion thrown in.
In Jane Eyre, Jane’s lonely and friendless state lures her into obsessing over her boss, who promptly tries to get her into a bigamous marriage. We all probably have had our experiences with hopeless crushes, emotionally unavailable boyfriends, married men at the office, and the like. But Jane’s romantic daydream comes true, only to turn into a nightmare. Author Charlotte Bronte warns the reader with plenty of negative imagery even before the famous “Stop the wedding!” scene. And what a melodrama that is. The priest asks if anyone knows of an impediment and a bride’s worst nightmare occurs: someone does, and it’s a doozy, the original Mad Wife in the Attic. Even a fantasizing governess can’t talk her way past her intended husband’s rank attempt at ignoring the law, so she flees. But then to show the reader how bloodless and unappealing the flip side of passion is, Charlotte Bronte has Jane find her cousins, among whom is a most handsome and godly fellow who wants to marry her. But he does not love her. He makes it clear that he has no passion for Jane, just for his religious missionary work. Signing on with him would be lifelong toil with no personal reward, and Jane very sensibly declines the honor. On the whole, she’d prefer the tormented scoundrel with the mad wife, a man who actually wanted Jane enough to defy morality to have her. (Taken that way, it’s a huge compliment, isn’t it?) Conveniently, by the time Jane returns to her beloved, his wife has died and he has suffered grievous bodily harm sufficient to punish him for his attempted sin. It’s not a perfect happy ending, because an attempted bigamist doesn’t deserve perfection. But it comes darn close. At the end she’s marrying the real man, not the moody, emotionally distant employer who fascinated her. One could call this the original Gothic romance. (Yes, there were previous Gothic novels, but this one caught the imagination of readers in its time and has held it for an astonishing 160 years.)
And then there’s Wuthering Heights, the fan favorite of people who like lovers completely above moral law. Personally, I have never thought of Heathcliff and Cathy as heroes, and all those wild meetings on the moors did not catch my imagination. Except in the Laurence Olivier—Merle Oberon movie. The sheer beauty of these two actors and of the moor setting imbued the characters with a nobility that their author, Emily Bronte, did not. But back to the book, which is really all about cruelty and revenge, carried out into the third generation. Cathy is no angel, but she dies early on, and Healthcliff, previously the butt of other people’s cruelty—including hers—turns into a monster. So Cathy’s influence as a heroine is to incite Healthcliff to a soul-deep rage that nothing on earth can satisfy. Because Cathy is dead. Hmm…this book is actually weirder than I remembered. It’s a revenge tragedy. Like Hamlet.
Unlike the movie’s dumbed-down plotline that’s all about marrying for money, the SparkNotes synopsis of Wuthering Heights reminds me that Heathcliff spends the years after Cathy’s death getting revenge on everyone who ever crossed him, and some who didn’t. His cruelty and his grasping for property and money turn him into a thorough villain, a villain whom the grown children finally outwit only after he gives up his quest to destroy them. That’s not how romance readers remember Heathcliff, though, is it?
What I took away from Wuthering Heights on reading it as a teenager was that here were two very selfish people who wanted each other desperately but instead chose other people and then tormented them and each other. Yes, Heathcliff and Cathy may have fallen in love as teenagers, but each of them marries someone else of their own free will, yet as adults they keep right on having a version of their adolescent affair. I understand that They Are Rebels. They have feelings that their stultifying society does not want them to have. But their feelings do not ennoble them. Still, I’m guessing that their continued appeal lies in their rebelliousness, their refusal to conform not just physically but emotionally to their cultural norms. As for me, I always wanted Heathcliff’s poor downtrodden wife, Isabella, to outsmart him and turn his filthy bachelor dorm household and his equally unpleasant male companions into a model home with cleaned-up family members all being polite to each other at the dinner table. Now that’s a fantasy!
Of these three historically important romance heroines, Elizabeth Bennet comes across as the most clear-eyed and rational, despite the pride and prejudice to which she eventually admits. (Okay, she admits to one of them. Prejudice, I think it was. But it could have been pride. If I dip into my copy of the book to check, I’ll be lost in Jane Austen’s world for the rest of the day. So just correct me if I have listed the wrong attribute.) Cathy is the most passionate and mercurial, but not a nice person at all, and she wouldn’t have your back, either. She represents sheer emotion unleavened by common decency or common sense. And Jane Eyre is something in between. She starts off naive and ruled by her emotions but she ends up knowing herself and others, too, while still believing in true love. Of course all three heroines share this belief, that true love exists, and that being with the right man will result in a lifetime—or maybe an eternity—of happiness. I guess what makes them so memorable is that all three were conjured up in a society that expected women to marry for a comfortable home, or for status, or just because some man picked them. So maybe even though we remember Heathcliff better than we remember Cathy, and even though I myself do not like her, the point is that the uncompromising nature of her wild emotions is an inspiration to believe in true love despite every daily message to the contrary, whether in the 19th century or in the 21st century.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
I Am Grateful Because…
There are other blogs. As I was making comments on a romance blog, Smart Bitches, I was thinking how wonderful it is that finally, finally, we who read romances and love romances have places where we can talk about romances.
You might think that editorial meetings provide that place, but editorial discussions often center on what is wrong with a particular manuscript, not on what each of us has read and what we thought of it. And heck, not all romance readers are editors or are editing romances.
Writers’ conferences don’t provide that place either. Writers talk about what’s hot and who’s accepting manuscripts, and about plot structure and building characters. At conferences (or at monthly RWA chapter meetings, for that matter) they very seldom talk about thematic issues within romances, either those they have read or those they have written. Another barren venue for discussing romance.
At romance fan conventions (of which there are very few) the talk seems dominated by shallow chatter about what is liked, without any introspection or intellectualizing, or any attempt to understand what a romance is or means personally or in the larger culture. And then these cons are famous for various silly group entertainments like male model contests. Not a lot of thoughtful parsing of romances going on here.
But on the Internet, the lovely Internet, there are websites devoted to talk about romance. Serious talk, frivolous talk, lusty talk, restrained talk. And there are many, many topics to which just about anyone can add her (or his) two cents worth.
It’s a great feeling to be able to say things one has thought while reading a romance, things that one’s Significant Other, while a lovely fellow, just isn’t terribly interested in hearing or even in thinking about. It’s also encouraging to read intelligent, witty comments by other romance fans, and be reassured that unlike the media’s portrayal of us, we aren’t all brain dead women. (But we mostly are women, I’ll grant that.)
Years ago, I read Gothic novels and thought about their recurring themes and even wrote down many of my thoughts. But I had nowhere to go with either my thoughts or my essays. I did not know anyone who read Gothics. (Or if I did, we kept our reading habits secret from each other.) There were no publications dedicated to romance. The occasional mention of romance in book reviews was pretty uniformly patronizing, too, which hardly encouraged me to mail in my Deep Thoughts about my despised genre. But today, I’m feeling pretty happy about the possibility of sharing some of my thoughts about Gothic romances with you at some point in the future.
Sure, Internet blogging can swallow up your day if you let it, just as merely visiting interesting sites can. But to know that at any time of day you can find a romance topic on some site, either a zine or a blog, and you can probably post your own comments—well, I’m grateful.
Friday, March 30, 2007
Taking it on Faith
Okay, I admit it. In addition to loving romances and comic books, I am an opera freak. So there I was, watching Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride” (the major Czech opera that set the standard for all others), and suddenly the hero did something that heroes used to do all the time in romances. And sometimes, still do. He demanded blind faith from the heroine.
The hero, Jenik, is putting one over on the whole town. He claims to be a stranger from Moravia, wherever the heck that is. And he’s in love with and has been wooing a young girl, Marenka. But her parents need money and want her to marry a rich young man. Lots of machinations later, Jenik makes it seem as if he has sold out Marenka—given her up for 300 ducats. Now that’s a familiar romantic situation, the hero being paid off to get out of the heroine’s life. And then of course someone tells the heroine that he has sold her out, betrayed her, denied their love, etc.
At this point, she confronts him, which is certainly better than a lot of romance heroines in books I have read. They tended to just run away themselves, usually into becoming Daddy’s Little Stepford Daughter, or whatever. They certainly did not listen to any explanations. Unfortunately, this heroine confronts her lover only to demand a yes or no answer as if they’re in court. And she follows another classic pattern by refusing to listen to the hero’s attempts to explain his trick. And so that gives rise to a funny argument scene, and a rather tragic-sounding song she sings. But he keeps trying to get her to take him on faith, to ignore what facts she has learned, and to just believe in him despite the facts. In direct contradiction of the facts. And she balks.
This reminded me of an explanation Gay Talese gives about mafia family dynamics in his book Honor Thy Father. He says that gangsters deliberately try to break their women down, so the women cling to them personally but have no will to adhere to any other moral compass. In other words, they accept their male relatives’ word as law, and even as truth. One sees this in the Godfather movies when Fay confronts the antihero about his killing his own brother-in-law, and he just lies to her to control her. Although Fay eventually figures him out, at the moment, she blindly takes him on faith.
This has always seemed wrong to me. When heroes playing a double game lead their women into believing that they are crooks, they frequently demand that the women believe in them to the detriment of the heroine’s own moral standards. Or the heroine voluntarily believes, and tries to save the hero, either from himself, or from the approaching consequences she fears will happen to him when his villainy is discovered. This always makes me squirm. It’s so embarrassing: here she’s desperately worried about him, possibly contravening her own moral code to try to help him escape, and he’s inwardly laughing at her or patronizing her. He knows what’s going on and she doesn’t. And he won’t tell her. It’s on a need-to-know basis, and she, the very woman he loves, isn’t in his inner circle and Does Not Need To Know. I hate it. It’s such a demeaning dynamic.
On the other hand, there are people in your life for whom you would commit crimes. People for whom you would risk your life so they would escape the consequences of their actions, even their evil actions. People whose actions you deplore, yet whom you would support no matter what. So I understand that the act of faith that the hero demands of the heroine (or the author demands of her) is in reality just another way of showing the depth of the heroine’s love. Of showing that it has no boundaries, etc.
But then consider the Meat Loaf lyric, “I Would Do Anything for Love (but I Won’t Do That)” There are limits. There should be limits. Limits to what a lover should ask of another lover. Limits to what a heroine should forgive in a hero. Limits to how much power in a relationship one person should cede to another.
The faith the hero should expect from the heroine is not the same as blind trust in the face of evidence that he has betrayed her. He needs her to believe that he is not the man to commit wrongful acts. Thus, he needs her to have confidence in his honesty, confidence in his fidelity, etc. So in the future when she sees him with another woman or doing something else that could be misconstrued, he needs her to have the confidence in him (and in herself) to assume that nothing bad is happening, and then to find out the facts. Not instantly to assume that he has betrayed her. This is the kind of faith a lover needs, not the other kind.
But true to the folk origin of this story, in this case, the hero is playing a trick on the matchmaker and on his own estranged father. He’s doing it to attain his own ends, and not counting the pain his behavior causes the heroine. Considering the grudging reunion with his father (grudging on both sides), his double dealing is even more destructive. Why hurt his beloved and show up his father as having been tricked, if he hopes for a happy future with either of them? It doesn’t make sense.
And that’s the unintended consequence of a hero’s demand for the heroine’s full faith, for her abandonment to love. Once he has shown her how deeply he can lie to her about who and what he is, once he has betrayed her innocent initial belief in him, she will always at the back of her mind have a niggling doubt: Is he lying to her again? Will he betray her at last? The suspicion, once planted, will always be there. How ironic that a demand for faith is what can cause a permanent lack of faith.
Friday, March 23, 2007
You Talkin’ to Me?
I’ve been visiting some writers’ web sites and noting the criticisms writers have received and their responses to that criticism. And the responses of third parties, which is of some significance in the blogosphere.
You read something on a web site, and you fire off a flip comment. Boom. You’ve flamed someone. They respond. Or their friends respond. They flame you back. More levelheaded individuals run with the topic and explore it in a more intellectual manner. You and everybody else vie for the last word until the possibilities for insulting, arguing, and just acting weird get used up.
And that’s the negative side of all this blogging. People who speak rashly and without any checks (other than filters or web mistresses to keep extreme comments at bay) attack other people with their words. In real life, face-to-face, most people wouldn’t say these things. Maybe at Thanksgiving dinners after everybody is sick of everybody else. Or at bars when people are drunk. But in general, home truths are meant for families, not for strangers. Fight at the family gathering, and you may become estranged. Fight at the bar, and somebody gets hurt and/or you wind up in jail. Fight on the Internet? No consequences! Yippee! Let’s fight!
Of course as soon as web hosting was invented, people realized that there would have to be standards and controls. But despite all kinds of moderators and filters, plenty of annoying, stupid, filthy, and basically useless comments get through anyway. But I’ve also noticed that a lot of people have figured out what to do about this. (Aside from having their friends beat you up.) They just don’t respond.
Awhile back I wrote about how the romance writing world is filled with lots of holier-than-thou harridans intent on teaching each other good manners. I cited the chiding responses to romantic suspense writer Anne Stuart’s saying in an interview something to the effect that she did not think her current publisher was doing a lot to promote her books. These words of Anne’s provoked horror, dismay, disdain, anger, and many other negative reactions. She was charged with being unprofessional and worse. Miss Snark wrote a column about it. Others wrote columns about Miss Snark. Jenny Crusie wrote a long declaration of writers’ rights defending Anne’s absolute right to say what she thinks in public. Many people weighed in on Jenny’s blog both positively and negatively. And elsewhere, no doubt, but I haven’t tracked them all down.
Meanwhile, Anne Stuart went back to writing, what she does best and what she also happens to do better than at least 99% of all romance writers. Really. She’s that good a writer. I can name fewer than ten—and that’s being optimistic—romance writers in the past 30 years who write as well as she does. I don’t always agree with her take on life, and thus I don’t rush to read all her books. I usually save them up for a few years, and then wallow in her world view for a while, alternately heavy breathing about her sexy, manipulative, dominating heroes, and hating their guts. Well, that’s me. What I’m trying to say is that Anne Stuart is a very good writer indeed. She tends not to get the numbers or the acclaim that her talents deserve, so maybe you haven’t heard of her. If not, check her out. But other writers know how good she is. Anyway, so Anne (that’s her nom de plume, by the way, not her real name) reacted to all the lecturing and sniping and flaming on the Internet by doing what she does best—writing. She alluded to the unfortunate incident on her web site, indicating that she got the message to shut up and write. And then she busied herself with her fiction writing and book promotion from then on.
That’s one way to deal. Use the Internet as a publicity tool and introduce a new topic when the tenor of the talk or the topic isn’t to your liking. We live in an intensely critical, rude world. Everyone believes themselves fully qualified to tell others off, to try to flog their own point of view. (And you know, maybe we are.) The blogosphere is the easy place to do it because one can be more or less anonymous even while saying some rather wild and crazy things. But clearly, lots of people who initiate discussion don’t like the connection to be fully two-way. They love to write. Some of them also love to talk. But when you visit many writers’ web sites, you will see that the writer tends to talk on a topic, allow commentary, but then talk on something else. It’s not a conversation. Despite being described as a very busy highway, the Internet is more of a one-way street than it at first appears to be. Regardless of all the hype that everybody is now so connected, the fact is that we aren’t. We are each in our private worlds. Don’t like the content of a site? Leave that site and find another. Getting too much e-mail from spammers and flamers and other assorted jerks? Change your e-mail settings or address, and dump them all. Not anonymous enough? Get a fake name and e-mail account to use for all your contacts on the net. And so it goes.
Another popular variant is the loop, whether formal or informal. Someone starts up a web site, or a group on Yahoo, and then a small group of people routinely talk to each other through it. It’s an open forum to the degree that most of their comments can be read by anyone (although some loops are members only and some forums have members only areas), and others can join in the discussion. There’s nothing evil about this, per se. But in both situations, the individual author site and the group site or forum, the person just randomly coming to a site is going to realize in short order that each site is like a new high school. You have to learn new rules and figure out who the popular girls are and who are the bullies. And woe unto you if you raise your hand too soon and draw the wrong kind of attention to your newbie self.
Which brings us back to the subject of saying indiscreet things, whether on a blog or on a website or even just in an interview that gets on the Internet. You want to express yourself. You want to join an interesting discussion or two. Ideally, you might like to make some new friends. But you also want to control the parameters of the experience, just as you would in real life, by choosing the people with whom you associate. But on the Internet such selectivity is impossible. If you want to talk publicly, you have to be willing to risk getting all kinds of responses. Even dead stupid ones from hostile people who just like being nasty. So what’s the lesson here? Say what you think, and ignore the reactions? Say what you don’t think, and try in vain to please the millions of people out there on the Internet (at least some of whom, statistically, will believe that anything you have to say is useless drivel)? Say what you think, and listen only to people you like? You tell me. Maybe I’ll listen.
Monday, March 19, 2007
HEROES—OR RICH DOLTS?
I just finished reading a story in which the hero was a dolt. A very sexy dolt, but a dolt nevertheless. He was rich, and rich men are idols of fantasy regardless of dolt status. Women like to think that successful romance with a rich man would be the ultimate pleasure. Or maybe the ultimate worldly triumph, a la Cinderella? But a romance with a dolt? I’m not enthusiastic. Reading about this rich guy’s doltishness did not amuse me. Watching the heroine win his doltish heart did not imbue in me a sense of romantic completion. I thought this guy was a waste of her time.
I’m sure the writer did not sit down and decide to create a hero who was a dolt. I suspect this happened as a byproduct of the plot she created. She needed him to be stupid or to act stupid at a key moment. The only way the story would work was if his intelligence suddenly took a nosedive. This happens more often than you think. In fact, in the writing world there’s a name for it and the name is: The Idiot Plot.
The idiot plot is a story that would not happen if some major character didn’t behave like a complete idiot. He sees something and leaps to an idiotic conclusion about it, which causes various other idiotic plot complications. Or she overhears or reads something, but the bottom line is that instead of doing what any normal person would do, and just ask the other person what’s up about this, the character takes some kind of action or has some kind of reaction that moves the story along in the path the author intends.
When a hero is behaving like an idiot it helps if he’s rich and glamorous, because these elements are distracting. Few can see a rich man without the powerful shadow of his wealth behind him, tempering his idiocy. And glamour, while it can be said to be a mere offshoot of wealth, can also be a separate category, as when a man has a mystique or a charisma about him. This can be from his looks or his bearing, or even from his profession. Movie stars (and TV actors) are glamorous, even though many of them aren’t all that rich or good looking. Their glamour is their chief appeal. After all, there are plenty of rich men in the world. Only a few of them ever get any major media coverage as glamorous. The rest are just rich. But back to idiocy (see how distracting wealth and glamour are?), the point is that a man who has the power of wealth or glamour can behave like an idiot and there will be consequences. He can close a company down, or date the world’s sexiest woman. He can command people. I once had a handsome man come up to me and ask me to do something, and it took me a minute to realize that he was using the power of his good looks (his glamour) to distract me from the truth that he had no business asking me anything at all. Such is the power of glamour.
The writer of a romance featuring a rich and glamorous hero is offering the reader a combination of powerful distractions. But the hero can still be a dolt as long as the reader doesn’t catch on. The writer’s task is to avoid disillusioning the reader. Creating heroes with credible personalities is a key step. The writer of a romance carefully seeds in bits about the hero’s personality so that his actions, however implausible, seem possible. This is often a matter of delicate balance. Make the hero too sensitive, and he comes across as a weakling. Make him too macho and he comes across as a jerk.
Well, how do you create a romance hero? There are two main ways. The first is to glamorize a real man. The second is to take a glamorous ideal and humanize him. An example of the first would be using one’s wonderful husband as the hero of all one’s romances. The writer enhances his sensitive qualities, beefs up his sexual ingenuity and energy, and magnifies his worldly success. But the key is that the writer uses the personality of a real man. His way of approaching the world and reacting to it. His way of dealing with conflict. The glamorizing bit comes in when not mentioning that this wonderful man routinely does not know where his socks are.
The second approach would be to take James Bond or any essentially fictional person, including that old TV ad character named the Marlboro Man (a craggy western guy on a horse, who smokes) and try to give him just enough personality to fit the storyline of this romance. Yes, even an actor seen for a mere 30 seconds in a commercial is a glamorous enough figure to be a character concept for a writer.
When a writer is using a real man as her base, she doesn’t take him whole. A romance hero is an exaggeration of a man, and his flaws are not the mundane flaws of real life. Not only is the romance hero magnetically attractive to the heroine, but others feel his power, too. A romance hero is an independent, confident man, strong enough to take onto his shoulders all the heroine’s problems. He doesn’t drag home exhausted from overwork, cursing the big mortgage and the kids’ bills that keep his nose to the grindstone. And most important, a romance hero does not need, as so many real men do, a motherly role from a wife, that of taskmaster, maidservant, and cheerleader combined.
When the writer is using a fictional hero as her base, she gives him personal quirks. If he’s a prince of a Ruritanian country, he’s a reluctant prince. If he’s a computer tycoon, he has a secret misery over some long-ago personal failure. If he’s a glamorous movie star, he’s desperate to be treated like a normal person by someone not out to steal his millions. And so on. So this unreal man has real yearnings or qualities added in, and what he needs from a heroine is a dose of the very reality that the real man (see the previous paragraph) doesn’t want.
But what keeps either hero type from becoming a dolt? Masterful writing can do it. Charlotte Lamb, who wrote many Harlequin Presents novels, had an especially fine touch with taking an implausible plot and creating such a tense, sexy, emotional drama that the reader would believe every ridiculous plot twist. A favorite was the one in which she took a cheap encounter in a bar, followed by an even cheaper sexual encounter, and turned it into a smashingly successful romance about love at first sight. (I’ve forgotten the title for the moment. Sorry.) The novel was much imitated by other aspiring writers, but it was the deft writing that made the story work and they lacked her masterful touch.
The other way to keep the hero from looking like a dolt is good plotting. Good plotting requires that the hero and heroine do everything that a person of normal intelligence would do in their situation. They ask the questions. They consider the possibilities. Most important, they do not ignore the obvious. It’s okay for a hero or heroine to leap to an unfounded conclusion, but the writer must first set up this person as the type who is emotionally prone to such leaping. And ideally, there should be another character or a little voice inside who tells the hero, “You’re being an idiot!” But having set up that the hero is driven by his emotional demons to behave like an idiot, then the writer can get away with making him a dolt.
Sometimes. Sometimes the writer has tossed in too much idiocy and the character cannot recover. That’s when a reader like me suddenly notices that the hero, good looking, sexy as hell, even rich, is still a dolt.
Friday, March 02, 2007
I went to a movie in which a romantic teenage girl in the boondocks falls hard for a worldly older boy from the big city. She’s been waiting all her life to meet her true love, and she decides he’s it. So she daringly sends him a love letter. The very next day, he rejects her, coldly saying that she’s way too small town for him. She is totally humiliated. Worse, at a big party he flirts with her sister. Her sister enjoys it, but her sister’s fiance is hurt and furious. He fights with his best friend from the big city, and one thing leads to another, and the worldly boy kills him. Cut to a few years later, and the worldly boy is older, sadder, but a not a lot wiser. When he sees the girl at a fancy city party, now a socialite and married to a rich older guy, the worldly boy tries to seduce her. She loved him before, right? Why not now, now that she is glamorous? But she tells him to forget it. She won’t betray her husband. Even though she admits she still loves this boy she had recognized years ago as her one true love. He is totally humiliated. She is heartbroken.
And it ends that way. Nobody is happy, the best friend is long dead, and who even knows what happens to the sister! But people love this story. They loved it when it was a poem in novel form by Alexander Pushkin over 170 years ago, and they still love it as an opera today (yes, it’s “Eugene Onegin” and I saw it at a Metropolitan Opera simulcast at a big movie theater). Versions of this sad tale of unrequited love have been retold all over the world for more than a century, including various actual movies.
People who like romance, a type of story devoted to happy endings, also like to see suffering. They like to see the risk involved in getting to a happy ending, and the pain that results when two people’s hopes are not in perfect alignment. At the end of this story, the heroine Tatiana says that she and Onegin had a chance when they first met. They could have experienced true love. But instead, he threw it away, and their chance (what we now like to call a window of opportunity) ended. Although she never cites the fact that he probably ruined her sister’s life and that he killed another man (in a duel, which was legal enough in tsarist Russia), it is implicit in her rejection. Onegin didn’t just crush Tatiana’s love. He did other things that could never be taken back, never erased. Although he sees a hope of recapturing his earlier innocence by recapturing Tatiana’s love, she has taken her own permanent step beyond the moment when she loved him. She has married another man. (And by the way, no, she couldn’t have gotten a divorce, but in that society she could have had an affair with Onegin with few social consequences.)
At this point in a conventional romance, the hero works on the heroine’s will, shows her that he has changed significantly, helps her solve a dire problem, or otherwise redeems himself and wins his way back into her arms. By contrast, in a conventional opera, people die. Friends, relatives, enemies, and even wars interfere, and the hero and heroine realize that the force of destiny is against them. (There’s an opera by that name, “La Forza del Destino.” By the end, every main character is dead.) But in “Eugene Onegin,” the story concentrates on the feelings of the hero and heroine, comparing and contrasting their out-of-synch personal realizations. The result is the greatest possible amount of misery they can each suffer while still living to be miserable another day. In a romance, after a suitable period of enjoying the hero’s repentance, the heroine allows herself to forgive him. That way they can both be happy. In “Eugene Onegin,” love does not win. Onegin realizes too late what he has lost.
Oh, the aching beauty of such suffering! The power and beauty of love, even unrequited and badly timed love, are what make this story timeless. For a general audience, evoking these feelings, unrequited as they are, is sufficient. For a romance audience, not so. In a romance, the main characters have to end up happy and with each other. That is the enduring requirement. The resolution must be more than understanding how love went wrong. It must actually fix things.
Of course the very insistence on a happy ending is why romance is a genre, as murder mysteries are (after all, they insist that the real killer gets revealed). In real life, many people love and their feelings are not reciprocated, or their situations do not allow them to be together. By touching on what happens in real life, eliciting suffering consonant with real life miseries, romances gain important emotional depth and believability. But in a romance, the probabilities are organized so that the lovers find their way to each other. By the end of a romance, all difficulties are swept away, and a rose-petal-strewn path lies ahead.
Since audiences know that a romance will end happily, why should they suffer along with the hero and heroine, worrying about unrequited feelings? And romance audiences do suffer. They shed tears as the heroine sheds tears. But why do they? It’s not mere suspension of disbelief. Romance audiences want to feel these painful feelings, but in a safe context, a context in which the ache of unrequited love will go away. By the end of the story, they don’t want to be weeping and thinking that nothing ever works out, that life is cruel, that one’s youthful hopes will all be crushed, that it’s stupid to have dreams, and so on. They want to believe the very opposite.
And this is where the romance audience and the mainstream audience part company. This is the very crux of the reason why so much scorn is routinely heaped on romances. It’s not the quality of the writing. It’s not the characters or the setting. It’s the happy ending. The determined view that unrequited love and idealistic feelings and all those mushy emotions will lead to happiness, not tragedy, sticks in the craw of people who view life as a vale of tears. The mainstream audience believes in unrequited love.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
I meant to post this a week ago, but I got so aggravated that I had to walk away for a while. Yes, even mild-mannered romance comic editors get testy.
So, what was the problem? I went to this really annoying web site called BeaucoupKevin (dot)com on which a romance comic story entitled “I Don’t Love You Anymore” from 1972 (published by DC Comics in Falling In Love) was held up to scorn as “the worst romance comic I’ve ever come across.” Pretty harsh criticism and I thought it was quite unfair.
[Quick-and-dirty synopsis: Girl leaves town on a visit to her cousin, promising to be faithful to her longtime boyfriend. Girl goes on group dates with her cousin, the cousin’s fiance, and the fiance’s brother. Girl discovers she has fallen in love with the new guy, and they admit their feelings to each other. Girl goes home, miserable at having to tell her old boyfriend that he’s history. Girl discovers that while she was away, her boyfriend met a new girl and has realized his feelings have changed, too! Girl reassures him that no one is to blame.]
Romance comics written 35 years ago were aimed at teenagers. This story was a fable illustrating that typical parental warning, “You will grow out of these feelings.” Regardless of when sexual activity begins, in our culture there is considerable maturing to do all through the teenage years and beyond them into the twenties. Paul Anka had a hit pop song about “Puppy Love.” What parents told their kids about puppy love 35 years ago is still true: “These feelings will pass. You need to date other people. You’ll grow out of each other.” Romeo and Juliet being the big exception—but that’s because they killed themselves rather than stick around and change their minds.
The theme of this comic book tale is well intentioned and sensible: First loves, especially teenage loves, can fade, and that fading can occur mutually. It’s convenient that while the heroine is experiencing the headiness of freedom, the hero is doing the same. Thus both partners are done with the relationship at exactly the same time, leaving neither one to feel let down or guilty. In real life it probably doesn’t work that neatly. But this is romance, where the happy ending is important.
Okay, I admit it’s not the best comic book romance story I’ve ever read. Yes, the dialogue is cliche-ridden and generally atrocious. Inker Vinnie Colletta butchered the art as usual. But as I was explaining to the Representative of the Opposite Sex who lives with me, it isn’t that the heroine deliberately dates another guy. She’s thrust into a pairs situation in the social context of the visit. And to her shock and dismay, she finds that she develops romantic feelings for this new guy. Despite his god-awful cliche chitchat.
Why then did my Somewhat Significant Other think this was a bad story? Because he thought that even group socializing (basically, double dating) with her cousin’s fiance’s brother was a betrayal of the hometown boyfriend. I disagree, because this story is taking place in an old-fashioned social landscape in which men and women did not mix much except through overt social occasions such as dating, dances, and parties. Thus, opportunities to meet new people were rigidly defined.
As for the web site guy’s low opinion of this story, I’m not so sure he even likes romance or has any understanding of it. His comments were in the form of a ha-ha quiz. He used a vulgar term for lovemaking that suggests he does not have the romance sensibility.
At least two men who read this story did not like it. Sorry, but when it comes to romance stories aimed at a female audience, I am not inclined to give men equal voting rights. Yes, the dialogue is cliche. But this kind of dialogue is symbolic. The words are not meant to show individual personality. They are meant to explain a situation in the fewest sentences possible. No twists or turns of distinct personality are included, because this heroine is Every Girl, not a specific girl. In a seven-page story, it’s pretty hard to turn her into someone unique, and the writer does not even try. The same goes for her new lover, who frankly has nothing to say of any interest, and all of it trite. This guy is merely the New Guy. There’s nothing distinctive about him. And suddenly, this girl who has had a settled dating relationship for five whole years is shocked to discover that she can fall for a new man.
Hmm…maybe that’s what my tiny sample of male critics didn’t like. The heroine of this story falls out of love and pays no consequences. She does experience some angst, but she does not even have to confess her change of heart. Her old boyfriend confesses his own first. How convenient for her.
Anyway, I’ve had a few days to cool off and be more moderate about my total rejection of the criticism of this romance comic story. I even dropped the word “stupid” from my description of what the male critics said. Mature of me. At least I didn’t claim that was “the worst blog I’ve ever visited.”
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Outlines versus Daydreams
I’ve been doing some considering lately about what an outline is. This is because some of our hopeful writers who send submissions seem extremely puzzled when we ask to see an outline before we okay writing a script. The distinctive difference between writing for other people and writing just for yourself is that for other people, you need substance. Specifically, you need a plot.
Think about it. When you buy a book in a bookstore, you expect there to be a plot. A beginning to the story, a middle, and an end. But I have had submissions that are only beginnings. Or that do not have middles. Or that do not have endings.
How can this be, you wonder? Well, a lot of romance readers have certain scenes that they daydream about. These are take-offs of scenes from novels they have read. Kind of like answer songs in music. They often happen when the reader believes that the author should not have sent the story in a certain direction so the reader rewrites the story in her own head. Or when the book is over but the reader wants it to continue. Often, these imaginary scenes are grandstanding martyrdom scenes. I’ve always believed that the core of Iris Johansen’s early success with readers was based on her predilection for writing exactly such scenes: The hard-done-by heroine bravely suffers kind of moment. Of course Johansen wrote her manuscripts at a professional level, which is why they got published. But they frequently contained these kinds of scenes.
So, the reader, frustrated by the uncooperative writer who insists on sending her story one way or even ending it, imagines a scene in her head. Some of these readers have gone on to write entire Star Trek or Star Wars stories, sheerly for the pleasure of continuing contact with characters someone else has invented. That’s fan fiction. And at least these people have written entire stories.
But other would-be writers don’t quite make it far enough to have written an entire story about Han Solo and Leia Organa. Instead, they dream up a few scenes or maybe just one scene. And then they think that these few scenes constitute a complete story.
This is the reason that editors demand to see an outline or synopsis. An outline tells what happens, step by step, citing the facts and the motivations for each event as it occurs. So does a synopsis. In my mind they are interchangeable, but a writer friend just told me he thinks that an outline is written before the story is written, whereas a synopsis is written after it has been written. Do you see any difference in the final product? Neither do I, but I’ll accept that for some people there is a distinction between the two.
Back to the would-be writer who has this great scene in her mind. I have actually had people describe such scenes to me and expect to sell the story based on having just one scene. But they don’t know what happens next to their characters. They have no plot. Maybe they figure that it’ll all take care of itself. In a blog I read today, Fun with Slush #4, another editor was complaining about the laziness of people who send this kind of partial submission. So it’s not just in the romance world that would-be writers think they only have to have a part of an idea, and someone else will deal with the rest. Years ago, a friend who was working for a classy hardcover publisher shared with me the snotty note a rejected author had sent the publisher: This lady was indignant, saying that there was a good story in her manuscript and all the editor had to do was find it. Not so.
It is the writer’s responsibility to write a complete story. Writing is work. The mere fact that we all use words every day does not make any of us writers. Just as the mere fact that we all eat each day does not make us cordon bleu chefs. So if you have what you think is a good story idea, do the work. Develop it. Create the actions and connections that turn dramatic scenes into parts of a complete tale. Not just parts.
The proof that you have done your thinking work as a writer is an outline (or synopsis) that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that all hangs together and makes sense. In the case of MyRomanceStory.com, the outline absolutely must have romantic moments. Modern romance is about touching and kissing and making love. If you can’t imagine more than a courtroom scene in which your hard-done-by heroine proves that her baby really is the hero’s, you haven’t written a romance. If your story consists only of snappy banter, you haven’t written a romance. If your hero and heroine never have a reason to kiss, you haven’t written a romance.
I love romances. I even love hard-done-by, nobly suffering heroines. Write that story in its entirety, and I’ll be happy to read it. But please, send me an outline first.
Friday, February 02, 2007
Practically Perfect in Every Way
My great-uncle was crazy about the Disney movie “Mary Poppins.” So much so that he went to see it again and again. (It came out in 1964, long before videotapes and VCRs brought movies into people’s homes on their own schedule.) At first I did not understand why he, a man of advanced years, was such a big fan of a kiddie movie. As time passed, I began to get it.
In “Mary Poppins,” the British Edwardian time period is pictured as idyllic. That brief 10 years after Queen Victoria died and before her eldest son also died (King Edward VII inherited the throne at age 59) has often been romanticized as a last moment of innocence, especially if one is an Anglophile. One pictures genteel young girls and boys being raised on great estates, imbibing healthy country air and memorizing lines from “Alice in Wonderland” and the Romantic poets. Which they did, before the Great War, aka World War I, dragged them all into the gritty reality of the 20th century.
The world of “Mary Poppins” is pre-war, but not truly aristocratic. The father is solidly middle class, not a gentleman of leisure. And he is oppressed by his job at a stuffy bank that takes his time from his family, usually with his complicity but not entirely. He eventually realizes that he is missing out on his children, but he sees no way of changing things. Does this sound like the lament of the middle-class American organization man of the 1960s? It should.
Meanwhile, the mother is played as rather frothy and silly, and part of that silliness is her campaigning for votes for women. When I first saw this movie, I thought Disney had it in for women because the mother is pretty consistently mocked. And she only gets one gown to wear, a far cry from the elaborate wardrobe of a fashionable city lady. On both counts, I think I was right; the mother gets slighted. Probably because she isn’t obsessively maternal in the American manner. This mother hires a nanny, and goes off to her own entertainments, while Mary Poppins, the super nanny, gives the children plenty of structure and fun in their lives. Hmm…what did this mean? Probably that Mother Should Stay at Home, a very typical message in America in the 1960s. (Heavy-handed and pointless disapproval, nonetheless. A movie wasn’t going to stop the rising tide of feminism.)
So, the parents are distant, the father irritable and the mother amiable. The neglected children are running wild until Mary Poppins brings order and fun to their lives. Mary Poppins pays attention. Mary Poppins knows lots of interesting people. Mary Poppins insists on rules. Thereupon, the children begin to fully enjoy their lovely life. And it is a very good life indeed: They live in a nice house on an exceptionally clean street, there are servants, and the children’s lives are full of safe little adventures. That is, once Mary Poppins shows them around. Think of her as the gifted teacher who opens a child’s eyes to literature, drama, or history.
As a final bit of education, Mary Poppins shows the children that their father has a heart. And that while he plays the autocrat at home, at work he has to kowtow to bosses. Armed with the new concept that their father is a real person who has feelings, and that their mother is even willing to give up her entertainments to be part of a closer family unit (she puts her suffragette ribbon on their kite), the children are ready to safely cross over from completely self-involved childhood into the next stage of maturity.
But the majority of the movie, and the reason my uncle watched it again and again, is the depiction of the fun and games of a safe childhood. The movie successfully recreates an idyllic moment in youth, and pegs it to a romanticized period in history. It must have reminded my uncle about his own youth, and of all the promise of being young and having a future. Before the World War changed the culture. Before the worldwide flu epidemic killed his sister. Before he discovered he wasn’t brave enough to face his family’s disapproval and marry the actress he loved.
“Mary Poppins” speaks to any child who gets cranky from lack of parental attention but who also really just needs a little bit of it to be fine, ready to start off on another safe adventure. But “Mary Poppins” also speaks to any weary adult who would like to see the world as safe and pleasant, filled with good people, fun, and love. It is a romantic movie in the sense that ordinary life is viewed with rose-colored glasses. Magical things keep happening. Fantasy is put on an even standing with reality. Life is filled with possibilities. And aren’t these elements the core of romance? Possibilities? Magic? Optimism?
Romance isn’t so much about sexual attraction as it is about hope. That’s why this movie meant for children, whose adults behave in a completely chaste manner throughout, is nevertheless a strongly romantic movie. In creating a mood of romantic optimism, “Mary Poppins” is practically perfect in every way.
Monday, January 29, 2007
Even the word “dating” still makes me uncomfortable. When I got old enough to date, I was so shy I could barely talk to a boy, let alone imagine having a date with one. Eventually, I did have dates. But I didn’t know the rules. So I wasn’t good at it and I probably gave some boys some very mixed signals. Who knew I was signaling at all? As for dating advice, my parents were hopeless; they had dated during the Stone Age. Plus, the books and magazines I read about dating might as well have been written by Queen Victoria.
I watched my classmates’ dating behavior, trying to figure out what was going on between the sexes. I learned a lot about how young men and women felt about each other and how they behaved towards each other. But that still didn’t explain the game of dating. So I read romance novels, and discovered that inviting a man in for coffee at the end of a date was a strong signal that sex would be included. News to me. Still, romance novels are fiction. They don’t explain dating rules. So back in my real life, when guys wanted to date me, I was reluctant to agree because I simply did not know what to do. Advice columnists and relationship experts explained the inner workings of some intimate situations, but nothing explained the dating game itself. (Did I think to ask other girls? Apparently not.) Dating felt horribly awkward, so I tried to get to know people in less formal and more group-oriented situations.
It worked. Fast forward a bunch of years and now I am happily married and retired from dating. What a relief! But I am still very curious about how the sexes interact. Turns out, so is everybody else. Advice columns still are a popular part of newspapers and magazines. Advice shows abound on radio and TV. Of course there is Internet advice; we have Dr. Charmaine on our own site. And a whole huge list of books has been published that try to explain modern relationships, try to organize and codify them, and try to improve them. Starting with books such as Codependent No More and The Cinderella Complex, Women Who Love Too Much, The Peter Pan Syndrome, Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, and others, the self-improvement genre grew and has focused needed attention on relationships. And as a natural follow-up to relationships, dating manuals were born.
I don’t have an exclusive on confusion. Despite all the new relationship freedoms in our culture, dating still perplexes lots of people. They have no clue about the expectations of the opposite sex in a dating situation. (That would explain nose hair and lack of deodorant. Also, wearing a tiara.) And they need a way to decode behavior. (“Is he trying to tell me something by not replying to my e-mails?” “Should I call again, even though she never called back?”) We have many new ways to communicate, too, and we need to know how to use these new technologies with couth. In a fast-changing culture, all the old rules and the new rules get jumbled together and we need help sorting them out.
So, what is life like on the dating frontlines? Not too good, it seems. Over a decade ago, The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right (by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider), made a big splash with its list of harsh, all-or-nothing rules women must abide by in the dating game. This book threw out modern behavior and practically called for women to start flirting behind fans again. Instead of allowing women to approach men they’re interested in dating, or call them, the authors insisted that women should never make the first move. The authors wanted women to make themselves seem elusive to the men they want to date. This, they said, engages ancient biological male hunting instincts, and the game is on.
Does it work? If you ever read the customer comments on Amazon, you’ll get a good sense of how readers reacted to this book then and still react to it now. Other books have a handful or a few dozen reader reviews. Even a decade later, The Rules has over 500. As dogmatic, artificial, and game playing as this dating manual is, people still find it relevant to their lives. (There is just one item that almost everybody objected to, and that was the rule not to even reply to a man’s phone calls. This was cited over and over again as rude and signaling of lack of interest that most of the men said they would interpret as—lack of interest!)
Yet in addition to the tough-talking rules in this book, the authors urge women to fill their lives with interesting hobbies, fun things to do, and other people. And to forget self-defeating behaviors like dropping everything to yearn over a man. The purpose is to become “A Creature Unlike Any Other,” and thus uniquely attractive as yourself. This is a positive message in a book that otherwise seems to take a very antiquated, even negative position regarding men’s and women’s behavior patterns. But did everybody listen to it?
Probably not, since dating manuals today cover exactly the same territory and keep urging women to stop living in fantasy land and start living their lives well. Cinderella was a Liar, by Brenda Della Casa, just published, has the subtitle The Real Reason You Can’t Find (or Keep) a Prince. She paints a fairly embarrassing, not to say bleak picture of young women so desperate for a bridezilla wedding that they will keep dating obvious creeps, or stalk men who are long over them, or turn themselves into chambermaids for their unappreciative boyfriends. Not to mention messing up their chances by acting full of themselves and just plain obnoxious. In other words, nothing has changed. Della Casa urges young women to get a grip on reality, back away from the cell phone and computer while drunk, and start living a happy, fulfilled life for themselves. Sound familiar?
There are lots more dating manuals available. Some are merely meant to be humorous. Some are laced with psychological insights from experienced, trained therapists. Quite a few have frank comments from men about dating, which can be very helpful when you’re trying to figure out somebody’s puzzling behavior (it could even be your own). But as I mentioned above, I managed to marry happily without doing a lot of dating. I hardly knew the rules, and never became comfortable with the game, and I preferred to just be myself. Lucky for both of us, I met a man who felt the same way. So if dating isn’t working out for you, maybe after studying up on the topic you should consider taking a break from it. To help you do that, Brenda Della Casa has a list of good things about life until Mr. Right shows up, if he’s going to. My favorite: “You want a cat. You get a cat.” It doesn’t have to come to that, of course. But you do not have to play games if you don’t want to.
Nefertiti, an Enduring Beauty
When it comes to romantic glamour, Nefertiti, beautiful queen of ancient Egypt, has it all. Her story contains mystery, drama, and a lost flowering of art and religion. Most people know of her. Yet nobody would pay much attention to Nefertiti if her likeness hadn’t survived in a gorgeous piece of statuary that to our modern eyes shows her as intensely beautiful. In fact, this artistic representation from around 1340 BC has taken on a life of its own. It is reproduced in countless anthologies of ancient Egyptian art. It is imitated whenever anybody attempts an Egyptian costume. And wherever there is an exhibition of ancient Egyptian art, Nefertiti’s bust is likely to be represented. Where would Nefertiti be without this flattering piece of statuary? Pretty much where the rest of us are headed, the ash-heap of history.
Here are the facts about Nefertiti as we know them today: Nefertiti was the favored queen of the renegade Egyptian pharaoh, Akhenaten. Akhenaten is viewed by the modern world as a very enlightened king because he dreamed up monotheism all on his own, thousands of years before it existed anywhere. This put him in direct conflict with the priestly establishment of his day (sound familiar?), so he abandoned the usual capital, Thebes, and built his own farther down the Nile, now called Amarna. During Akhenaten’s reign, the formal art style changed. Akhenaten himself looks pretty weird, with a pointy chin and big lips. And all the royal family have very elongated heads—unlike any Egyptian royalty depicted before or since. Nefertiti is in these depictions, and her head also is elongated. To complement that look, she wears a crown or headdress unlike any worn by any Egyptian lady. Nefertiti also assumes unusual importance in the stone carvings and paintings that tell us about ancient Egypt. Whereas conventionally, a man’s wife and children are represented in miniature size alongside him, Nefertiti was depicted in the same scale as Akhenaten on the wall paintings of the day. Proof she was very important. But it is her bust that has made her famous.
Nefertiti has fine features. And to my eyes she has a snooty and self-possessed look—just the kind of look that went over big in 1912, when her bust was found. Most ancient Egyptians look calm and happy. But Nefertiti looks like she’ll make mincemeat of you if you cross her. She’s a high-ranking lady made of steel. It takes a strong will to wear a headdress that huge and keep your chin up, but Nefertiti does it.
Nefertiti’s calm but deadly gaze, now known to western civilization for almost 100 years, has inspired many works of fiction, including straight romances, reincarnation tales, time-travel adventures, and more. In real life, Nefertiti gave birth to six daughters and was married to a fairly odd-looking nutcase pharaoh. Then she vanished. In fiction, she gets visited by modern time travelers, or is reincarnated into the bodies of modern young women. Or she is the star of far-fetched alternate history tales. Her ghost talks in seances. Her ectoplasm visits high-strung gentlewomen who live in spooky houses. And so on.
As silly or as sentimental as these fictional takes on Nefertiti sound, at their core they are proof of just how inspirational one dynamic piece of artwork can be. How the very idea of Nefertiti, the beauteous queen as represented by her bust, has forged an imaginative chain of hope and longing between modern people and a person who has been dead—regardless of the mysterious circumstances—for at least 3,300 years. A link between today and an ancient, vanished culture that is repeatedly expressed in romantic outpourings.
When people scoff at any visual medium, about art, they should think a little bit about Nefertiti. And ask themselves why they even know who she was. And then just look at her.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
The Story on the Cover of a Romance
What kind of romance cover makes you want to pick up the book (or comic) and read it?
I’ve always been attracted to covers with brides on them. Bridal gowns are so special, so elaborate, and so individual. And women usually only wear them once. Sure, celebrities or Hollywood types may have fabulous white (or off-white, oyster, pearl, or cream) designer gowns for each of their innumerable weddings. But for the normal woman, there is usually just one wedding in white, and then the other weddings, if they happen at all, are far less formal. I even know a couple whose second wedding was in Vegas, officiated by an Elvis impersonator. (Considering the number of people who do that every year, you probably know someone, too.)
I never thought much about what I liked on the cover of a romance, what drew me to pick it up and maybe buy it or check it out from the library, until an editor told me that romance readers play favorites. And then I realized she was right. Certain themes, such as marriage of convenience, or amnesia, appeal to me. So if a cover of a romance hinted at either, I would pick up the book. (Sales professionals say that if a customer gets the book into her hand, the book is pretty much sold.) Thus a bride on the cover would not just signal “nice dress,” but would also signal the kind of story set-up I like to read about.
Obviously, showing amnesia isn’t as easy as showing that there’s a wedding in the story. Usually a tag line will explain that amnesia is involved. And maybe the hero and heroine look a bit puzzled. I love to read those stories. They always seem so fantastic. And I love how the person with amnesia gets to start over in life for a brief period and discover their personal likes and dislikes anew. But I have a friend who does not find amnesia in the slightest bit romantic ever since a relative suffered brain damage in an accident. So it’s not a romance theme that is to everyone’s taste. Perhaps if you know someone who actually had to contract a marriage of convenience, you might not be amused by that storyline, either.
And then some people like stories set on islands. I hadn’t thought of myself as a big island fan, but come to think of it, I’ve been watching “Lost” on TV and that all takes place on an island. Or supposedly it does. Or maybe twin islands? Who knows? Often, island settings are beautiful. And private. So there’s a back-to-Eden theme underlying many romances set on islands. Of course they could just be inhabited islands that cater to tourists, such as in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. Then there’s the having-a-fabulous-vacation theme.
Beautiful clothing on a heroine appeals to me. (See bridal gowns, above.) Every once in a long while, the actual faces of the characters depicted on a book cover appeal. But since they are meant to be rather blandly beautiful, they usually don’t do much. When I think about it, probably the people on book covers who are most appealing are the ones taken from real life. Either cover models with something distinctive about them, or swipes of celebrity or movie star faces. Needless to say, no politicians!
Bodies? Especially hot bodies? I know it’s been a big thing for years to have clinch covers and semi-nude heroes, especially on historical romance covers. But despite my visual orientation, these depictions don’t excite me. I think the reason is that the men are too muscular, too beyond what I would find comfortable in real life. (True story: I once shared an elevator ride with three men from a professional sports team. They were enormous, just enormous, and not one of them had an inch of fat below the waist. It was way intimidating physically. And I am neither short nor tiny.) On the other hand, I do enjoy a good looking cowboy or a sheriff. Not a city cop. That uniform doesn’t appeal, probably because I spent enough time in big cities to encounter plenty of those guys. Way too beefy for me. But highway patrolmen seem more lithe, gracefully manly without the excess meat. And that vertical stripe on the side of the uniform pants makes any man’s legs look long and strong. Now, is this a sexist, objectifying series of comments, or what? Sorry guys. We do look and assess.
Hmm…what else? What do you look for in the cover or the instant visual for a romance? The setting? The hair color? The time period? The apparent wealth of all involved? A big castle in the background? Scottish tartans? Glamorous locales or industries such as movies, music, or sports?
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Romance as a Bad Habit
We all develop bad habits. These are defined as repetitive behavior that harms us in some way but also delivers some reward to us. For most of my life, my favorite reading material has been defined by society as a bad habit.
When I first started reading comic books, I was the age when most children stop reading them—eleven, and just leaving elementary school to go to junior high school. Just beginning to be an adolescent. Just having my whole life turn upside down because from then on socializing would be based on something more complicated than merely meeting girls my own age. It would involve forms of competitiveness with those girls. It would involve boys.
I picked up the comic book habit just like a drug addict picks up that habit, except there was no pusher involved other than house ads in each issue telling me about upcoming stories in the next issues. I’d seen comics around and read them at other kid’s houses, but they had never been in our home. And then I bought some for myself and was hooked.
But my parents did not approve of my new habit, and they talked me out of it. They considered comic books to be utter trash. (Does this remind you of what some people say about romances?) There I was, still a child but on the cusp of change, who had just found this source of great reading pleasure, and my parents told me it was a degraded form of literature. Useless, below our intellectual standards, ephemeral—take your pick. It was unworthy of me and I should stop. So I did. I even took my little stack of comics to the back yard and started to burn them in a bonfire. Whereupon my best friend begged to have them instead. So only a few comics actually were consumed on the pyre. No Marvel Collector’s Item Classics. They were all DCs.
A few months later, I was back reading them again. I simply could not give up the habit. But because I could not give it up, I had to ask myself why. Because I had to justify it to my parents. And to myself. And I realized that comic books spoke to me in a way that nothing else I had ever read spoke to me. I loved the color, and the adventure, and the passion. Comic books made a true connection to me. Over the years, I came to believe that any art that does that cannot be trash. You could argue that if I felt a true connection to porn, that would not make porn art or change it from being useless trash. I’m not here to debate that with you. Just to tell you why I read comics. And romances. And why I respect myself for reading them.
But let me return to my story. I don’t remember how I talked my parents around, because at the time I did not fully understand how comics had such a firm grip on me. Still, my mother yielded to my pleas, and allowed me to buy comics again. But she put her foot down and said no romance comics, as they were the most worthless and shallow of the lot. (Romance are worthless and shallow? Where have we heard that before?)
Then one day I decided that I wanted to read a romance, the very thing that everyone around me derided. Not a book with literary merit that might just have a romance in it. Not a piece of historical fiction that included the love life of a Tudor or Plantagenet. A romance: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. I had never read a romance. I found one at the public library, a place from which my parents allowed me to pick any book. And so I found Emilie Loring, who had been writing straight contemporary romances since the 1920s. And who was dead when I first read a book with her name on it. And who actually did not write that book. But there was love at first sight and a Romeo and Juliet kind of dilemma and a happy ending. It was a romance, and I was hooked. Again.
And hooked I have remained to this day. I added to my comic book collection. I even went to work in the comic book business. But I also read all of Emilie Loring, and Mary Stewart, and Victoria Holt, and Dorothy Eden and paperback romances by Arlene Hale and Elsie Lee and lots of more obscure writers who did nurse romances and Gothics and Regencies and historicals. And much older books by Jeffrey Farnol and Georgette Heyer and Rafael Sabatini, and Ethel M. Dell and the Baroness Orczy, too. And Roberta Leigh and Charlotte Lamb and Anne Mather and Margery Hilton and Betty Neels. But I have to stop listing these authors, because you know that reading romances involves a very long list of authors, because it’s a lifelong habit. Sure, I read plenty of other kinds of books. But the consistent emphasis on emotions keeps me coming back to romance.
Eventually, I added opera to my other habits, and then I realized that the color, drama, and passion that opera delivers are similar to that of a comic book or a romance. Funny, though. Nobody tries to argue me out of opera as a bad habit.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
Here we go again: The latest version of the usual debate has been raging on various web sites. You know, the one about whether romances are serious literature, or should be considered seriously, or even should be reviewed by serious literary reviewers in serious literary publications (see Smart Bitches: Litblogs vs. Print Reviews: FIGHT! 6/15/07.) A new wrinkle on this debate has been for print journalists to slam at blogging in general (see Adam Kirsch’s The Scorn of the Literary Blog). This even though it should be obvious that blogging enfranchises thousands of people to weigh in on what they themselves are interested in and not what the literary establishment thinks they ought to care about. Apparently, free speech by the readers themselves isn’t legitimate criticism. Only that of serious print journalists counts, and by the way, it just so happens that they don’t think romances are worth reviewing.
Well! Time for some free speech here, y’all:
• The people who read books have a perfect right to express their opinions of those books in any medium to which they have access.
• The (chiefly) women who read romances have a perfect right to read them without some huffy literary establishment taking pot shots at them. (Just as, to be fair, do the readers of any other genre, be it manga or self-help.)
• The people who read romances because they like romances are probably the best people quipped to review them. But not the only ones.
• And nobody has any call to rag on and dismiss a particular literary genre because it is a genre.
• Especially because it is a genre mainly written and read by women.
That said, some books are better written than others. Some books fully articulate significant themes. Some do not. Out of all the millions of books ever published, there aren’t a whole lot—certainly not thousands and thousands—that uniquely say something unique. Some authors are not even trying to be unique. They’re just trying to get in their two cents’ worth, adding to the collection as it were.
Inevitably, some romances are better written than others, and some are fashionable and then fall out of fashion, leaving later generations to wonder why anybody cared. To be honest, I feel that way about Dickens. Some of his themes still have some validity today, but I just hate his sentimental lies, his cutseyness, and his hypocrisy. Guess what? His huge reputation has been sinking for quite a while, and these days almost nobody reads him voluntarily.
But then, few people outside of college bother with Pamela, the first English novel, which is a work of such lasciviousness, hypocrisy, melodrama, and outright balderdash that it’s a wonder anyone has ever taken it seriously as literature. It should more properly be called a singularity, or a breakthrough, because it started a fashion that continues to this day, of writing about people who are not tragic kings and queens or mythic heroes, but more or less ordinary mortals. For millennia, art was only supposed to be about people in high life, people of importance. When the opera “La Boheme” (popularized yet again recently as the Broadway hit “Rent”) opened in the late 19th century, it scandalized audiences because it was about ordinary people. Ordinary people as the subject of serious literary fiction have been in the ascendant ever since. Find me a popular drama today, in the 21st century, that is about a princess, or a Greek hero, or a god. (I am not counting anything about Princess Diana, because she firmly belongs in the pantheon of exalted tragic heroines. Somebody ought to write an opera about her. But instead, they’ve written an opera about Sweeney Todd, a guy who kills people and…yuck.)
But wait. Romances today sometimes do feature stories about fairy tale princesses! (Who live happily ever after, let it be noted, not who live unloved and who die and whose rival then gets the prince.) Romances seem to be the most utterly conventional of here-today-gone-tomorrow literature, and yet they explore all kinds of deep-seated, mythic themes. What is going on here? Could it be that, disguised as ephemeral claptrap, authors of romances have something serious to say?
Possibly. And then again, maybe not. It is the proper place of serious critics to figure out what is going on in romances, to point out themes, and hypocrisy, and political subversiveness, and failure. It sure would be good if these same critics also told us readers which romances are the best, and warned us about the ones on which we need not waste our time. Movie critics do just that, and they do it for some of the most godawful tripe that Hollywood has mashed together and dared to call entertainment. We could use a sourpuss movie critic to take romances seriously and do some slash and burn through the large amounts of dreck that see print.
This would be a deeply appreciated service, because not every romance is wonderful. The tenor of what little romance criticism so far exists sometimes is a little too nice-nice. Make that way too nice-nice. There is room for someone with a good critical eye to hold romances to the standard to which other novels are held. Because, really, writing humorous or best-selling romance (I will name no author names, but insert a couple of well-known ones here) does not make those romances works of great literary importance. Yet the huge numbers of people reading romances should make literary critics sit up and pay attention. And not just read one and think they’ve read them all.
Who is paying attention? So far, readers of romances, writers and commenters on blogs, and home-grown forums of all sorts, that’s who. Who is not paying attention? Readers, writers, and critics who consider the romance genre to be unworthy of any serious interest. It bears repeating: Anything that so many people like so much is important in understanding our culture. These stories may even be important in understanding human existence, period. Of course there is plenty of trash out there in genre land. Even in romance genre land, much as I love romance. But there is treasure, too. I urge anyone with the chops to do serious literary criticism to take a serious look at romances.
Monday, June 18, 2007
To the degree that popular fiction is a lie, it doesn’t live beyond its original moment.
It has to be revisited for this to be obvious, though. So go back to an old romance you read many years ago, and read it again. Do the circumstances of the heroine strike you as quaint? Does her conflict with the hero come off as artificial? Some situations and conflicts are extremely topical, which is not quite the same thing as a lie.
An example of topicality would be a contemporary romance written in the 1970s or early 1980s, in which the heroine is trying to work in what previously was an all-male career slot instead of being just a secretary, and she gets a lot of flak from the hero or others about it. And she herself is defensive, prickly, and very determined to not compromise an inch because of how attacked and vulnerable she feels. This was a legitimate phenomenon in the 1970s and immediately thereafter, as the baby boom generation of women pushed its way into the working world. But despite the glass ceiling that was later discovered, the reality of women’s jobs is different now from what it was then. Women don’t have to fight to walk in the door anymore. That there still are battles is understood. But there’s already something antique about a romance in which the heroine is, say, a cop, and the hero acts like she’s a rare bird. Our world has moved on. We take it for granted that there are female cops. That’s topicality, and topicality dates a romance.
No, what I’m talking about are what I call sentimental lies. These are elements of a story that are false to the characters and their situation (whether it’s a topical situation or not), but which are expected by the popular audience. An example of this setup would be any romance heroine of the 1950s or 1960s who has an artistic career and a boyfriend who doesn’t like it. In the popular trend of the day, every woman had to give up her career for a life of domesticity. Even when the heroine very clearly had unique artistic talent as, say, a ballerina. Harlequin published several romances about women whose beloved felt totally threatened by and angry at the demands of the woman’s career. So the woman would give it up. And they would then live happily ever after. Ha! Not so fast.
Did they live happily ever after? Or did these women just try to make peace with being on the losing side of a battle? (Especially since it was a battle whose opponents consisted of the entire male establishment and most other women, too?) The problem with the sentimental lie is that in real life people do not get the result that the sentimental lie predicts. Oh, sure, plenty of women have given up careers for marriage. But then many of them were not happy at all, and they acted out their frustration and grief in various unpleasant ways. They lived through their children; they became alcoholics; they turned into the neighborhood gossips. Or harem schemers, or unfaithful wives, or whatever. Unhappy people who feel trapped and hard done by—and who have little reason to believe their lost cause is noble—do not rise to sainthood; they head the other way.
If you read a romance written in the 1950s or the 1960s, the writer will trot out the party line about how the heroine must stop being a concert pianist or an opera singer or a ballerina (even though these are such feminine, artistic careers) and just stay home and polish the furniture and herself—and that she will be happy. But first, the writer will set up an adversarial situation between hero and heroine that cannot be resolved without someone totally giving in, or there being a deus ex machina like a node on the vocal chords, or a broken hand or foot. The writer organizes the story so that it has to end with the heroine losing. To our modern eyes, this is no victory for love, but rather the destruction of a woman’s hope. The men also come across as incredibly selfish and pigheaded, not attractive or caring at all. It isn’t a happy ending. It was only a sentimental trend for a fairly short period in our society, but these stories are virtually unreadable now. This kind of story’s ending was a sentimental lie. Such stories come across as very obviously false once the public has moved on to other lies. And so later audiences turn away.
Incidentally, this is a major problem with older movies, TV shows, plays, operas, novels, and so on. The audience has moved on. It no longer pretends that the false feelings are real, and thus the story is not believable. Think of Shakespeare: “Othello” still works because insecurity can always fuel irrational doubt (helped of course by Iago’s villainous actions). “Romeo and Juliet” works because to very young teenagers, not to get what they want is still enough to make them want to die. They do not have the leavening of life experience that will allow them to compromise (or sell out). But “The Taming of the Shrew” is a problem because to modern eyes, even at the end Kate isn’t getting a particularly good deal. The power dynamics of the story were always evident. But public acceptance of the outcome has changed.
Why does any of this matter? It’s the reasoning behind the way we tell stories on MyRomanceStory.com. On the one hand, we want to tell an interesting story that feels credibly modern. And since we know that modern lovers make love before marriage (they always have, but that’s another story) without significant social consequences, we include that in our stories. But we also know that no matter how tough modern people talk, or what their sex lives are popularly reported to be, they still have the same feelings human beings have always had. So we try very hard to get at the truth of their feelings, and to show why the heroine picks this man, and the hero picks this woman. It isn’t enough that they are a man and a woman of marriagable age. They have to make a connection that is believable and unique. And by the story’s end, whatever differences or doubts they have must be resolved in a way that strongly indicates that they are going to be happy together for a long time.
Anything sentimentally conventional about their romance becomes a trap into which the story could fall and date itself. Even the sentimental convention that they make love. Still, human nature being what it is, men and women continue to be attracted to each other. How they get from those initial feelings to a lifelong commitment in which both people will be happy is what our romances are all about.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
You CAN Tell a Book By its Cover
My library reading group (it’s practically a law that women must join one) just read a classic tale of Norwegian pioneers of the late 19th century in the Dakota prairie, Giants in the Earth, by Ole Edvart Rolvaag. It was on a lifetime list of important books to read that I’d had knocking around in my files since high school. This book was published in America in 1927, after Rolvaag, a university professor in Minnesota, oversaw its translation from the Norwegian in which he originally wrote it. I talked the group into reading it. Since this book was so antique, the more squeamish members, the ones who won’t read any sex or violence, were willing. They knew there would be nothing in so old a book to offend their sensibilities. Eighty years old! But what beautiful prose.
All our copies were old, too, because the book is seldom read anymore even though it is a classic. (Willa Cather’s similar classics get more reprinting, so it’s possible to find new printings of O Pioneers! and My Antonia.) Turns out having a new printing is a significant issue. One lady in our group refused to read the selection because she did not like the antique typeface (the font) and the overall old-fashioned look to the book. This lady wouldn’t read a book only because of how it looked. How weird is that? Yet she’s the most daring reader in our group, who thinks nothing of reading all kinds of tough modern nonfiction as well as fiction. She hasn’t suggested a sugarcoated book for us to read yet. But she said this book looked too much like something one is forced to read in high school, in that it had a library binding, the kind put on a book that is going to get a lot of wear over many years.
What the heck does this have to do with romance, you wonder? Well, a while back I talked about buying books (or borrowing them from the library) because their covers appealed. I don’t think I had considered just how often we turn away from books because their covers repel us. Or the presentation of their insides.
For instance, not being an historical romance fan, I pass right over any cover that purports to be one. Especially covers that feature a great sweep of cloth and flesh, but don’t pin down the historical era or the country precisely. These vague, swashbuckling covers strike me as mere eye candy for women. These covers signal bold, warlike heroes, and highly girly, self-willed heroines of olden days. A clash of egos reverberates through hundreds of pages of breathless adventure and passion. These books are catnip to many romance readers. Alas, they leave me totally cold. A cover art appearance of the famous Italian model, Fabio, never meant anything to me. So these covers repel me. I don’t even look at them closely. Sure, some have pirate ships in the background and others have medieval castles, and still others have the hero Not Wearing Any Clothes. But I just don’t care.
When certain mainstream romance novels started having covers with just a flower or two on them, or a tasteful string of pearls, instead of a man and woman embracing, I also steered clear. Not my kind of book, and the covers, so similar in style to each other, were once again plainly telling me that the books inside were all of the same ilk.
Meanwhile, covers with crude folk art drawings signal a different kind of read altogether, a more mainstream story. It’s often a small town setting with a plucky tale of a young girl with no education who finds herself a brand new family. A lot of what are called Oprah books have covers like that. I stay far from them, although the reading group has required me to at least give them a try. Life of Pi (by Yann Martel) had this kind of cover although it has nothing to do with a small town or a plucky young girl. But it’s definitely a mainstream read. (I found it to be more like a comic book story than anything else; I guess magic realism and comics are two sides of the same coin.)
I’ve heard romance readers disparage the already classic chick lit style of retro cover art (those stick-figure women wearing stilettos), but it’s certainly recognizable. The pastel backgrounds are a tipoff, too. A number of humor books have come out lately with similarly styled covers, obviously aimed at the same demographic that buys chick lit. Well, if it’s not your thing, it’s easy enough to recognize.
And what about Nazi thrillers? Those swastikas on the cover are a specific promise about what’s inside. Likewise, very dark, usually black covers with spilled blood on them, or a partial face of a man with eerie, glaring eyes. No serial killer stories for me, thanks, and these covers tell potential readers quite clearly that there is violence and nastiness inside. Murder mysteries have a whole bag of tricks to signal to readers whether the story is a cozy, or a police procedural, or a gritty tale of urban anomie, or even a period piece taking place in the 1920s at some ritzy house party. It’s all there on the cover. Big houses, murder weapons, mean streets, and art deco jewelry are common representations.
And what about the book itself? Aside from the reading club lady, I have a friend whose eyesight is very poor, so reading anything but a hardcover book with relatively large type is difficult. He doesn’t even look at the mass market paperback racks. I know other people who never glance at the hardcover books in a store, knowing that they cannot afford to spend three times the cost of one paperback just to get one book. So they aren’t even looking at the covers, just the book format. Similarly, classic children’s stories such as A Wrinkle in Time are often packaged in two formats, the chapter book style for younger readers (wide pages, thin spine), and as a mass market paperback for slightly older readers. It has been said that chick lit buyers don’t want to be seen with mass market paperbacks in their hands, hence the standard that chick lit is usually in trade paperback size. So format really does mean something to readers.
Of course after eighty years, I have no clue how Giants in the Earth first was presented, other than knowing that in 1927, dust jackets on hardcover books were just that, paper jackets to keep the leather bound books from dust. Art on such covers was highly optional; some had it, and some did not. I do know that this book (and I read a first edition, but with a library binding) had no interior illustrations, and no frontispiece. But there was an endcover page with the outline of a man pushing a plow…
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
One reason that fairy tale heroines have been in style lately (actually, aren’t they always in style?) is that they embody old traditions of femininity, plus current ideas of female heroism. Appealing to old-fashioned value systems while acting on new ones is quite subversive. On the surface these fairy tale romances don’t rock the boat, but the currents are another thing. Much has changed.
What’s traditional? Cinderella and Snow White, to use two very popular archetypes, are powerless victims menaced by the ceaseless jealousy of other women. Snow White isn’t even safe out of sight; her mere existence is obnoxious to the evil queen. And it isn’t enough that the wicked stepmother favors the other sisters; they collude in demoting Cinderella to a servant, one whose daily humiliation is to slave for them. Snow and Cindy are both young, beautiful, pure, and good. They are modest. They are not embittered by the cruelties of others. They are dutiful, even to betraying parents. And they also know how to be happy. The big irony in Snow White is that Snow is happy and cheery in a tiny, shared cottage, while the queen is miserable in the family castle. Cindy is happy with her mice-made gown (in the Disney movie, at least) and goes to the ball to have a good time, while her sisters are fretful and desperate to grab the prince’s attention.
These two fairy tale heroines have passive virtues. They react admirably, but they do not act. Additionally, Snow and Cindy suffer without complaining, a classic passive female behavior that traditionally is rewarded in fairy tales (and supposedly in real life, too, but that’s doubtful). The fairy godmother helps Cindy. The mice make Cindy a gown. The woodsman refuses to kill Snow. The dwarves give her a home. Bad things happen, and these heroines just endure them and wait for something good. And then the prince comes to save the day
What is so striking about these stories is their continued power. Little girls (and big ones, too) still dream of being rescued from all stress and strife by a handsome prince. A lot of women know better than this, but still yearn for a world in which doing nothing on their own will actually get them what they want. Plenty of women still think that going along with this traditional program works. Sadly, as authors of fact-based economic texts such as The Feminine Mistake (by Leslie Bennetts) tell us, women pay a huge economic price for believing in this dream. It’s a lot safer to read about the rewards of being passive in a fairy tale than it is to try to practice a passive life. Issues of impoverishment in old age loom. A man is not a plan, even though in romances, it often seems as if he might be.
Fairy tale endings can happen for modern romance heroines, but the heroine has to do something, not just be something. The conflict in the past often was between the women, and the judge/rescuer was the prince. The prince decided whose foot fit into the shoe. The prince woke Snow White from the death spell with his kiss. Now, the heroine of a fairy tale romance can have a career, have a stake in the prince’s political struggles, fight with him, intervene in a power play, and more. But because it is a fairy tale, he still has to save her at the end. Sometimes critics object to this classic ending as antifeminist. As a feminist myself, I don’t, because princes are supposed to be heroes. A modern heroine can be as aggressive, assertive, daring, opinionated, or downright aggravating as she wants. She does not have to display passive goodness. The prince simply has to be enough of a hero to do his part in saving the day. He doesn’t always have to do it physically. The heroine can avert an assassination attempt on the prince, for instance, and he can then be her hero by arranging for their marriage to be accepted by his weird little Ruritanian nation, or by solving some problem she has, or whatever. In the modern fairy tale, both the heroine and the prince live their best life, acting up to their potential. Neither is diminished by the other’s strength.
But surprisingly, a lot of modern romances start with rather traditional-at-heart heroines. These often sadder-but-wiser women are the reluctant achievers. Even while fulfilling or even surpassing any youthful dreams of independence, these women keep their claim to modesty and passivity, i.e. to classic femininity, by having been “forced” into their current mode. These are women who did not intend to go it alone, but for whom circumstances have not been ideal by any reasonable standard. They aren’t fearless pioneers, daring secret agents, or the like. They are survivors toughing it out in situations they never planned. It’s great that the business is a success and the kid’s head is on right, but despite all her hard work, it’s all an accident. She isn’t brassy enough to have done it on purpose or even to like it. Accusations of workaholism are true for this heroine, who has given up on fairy tales. For her, the fairy tale romance is not a test of her virtue, but a test of the hero’s, with her as the judge. Is he pure enough to be worthy of her? Or is he just another selfish user in disguise? The heroine doesn’t trust her judgment, which makes it harder.
Another version, a more passive one, is when the entrapment and cruelty of the evil stepmother has a modern substitute in the entrapment and cruelty of a man too cynical and bruised to recognize goodness when he sees it. First, he has to test it. Then maybe he can believe. That’s the basic premise of the classic modern romance that pits an inexperienced, powerless heroine against an embittered, powerful hero. Like all fairy tales, it has a happy ending. Once the prince realizes the goodness of the heroine, he ceases to be a menace to her. Regardless of the heroine’s seeming passivity, though, she draws a moral line in the sand that the hero eventually recognizes and submits to. That’s what makes even the most fairy-tale-ish of modern romances different from real fairy tales. In the old fairy tales, heroines merely had to be good. Now, they have to prove it.
Still, there’s nothing like having a prince on bended knee before you, offering you the world. It’s not surprising that many an hour has been whiled away on stories of fairy tale romance, whether traditional, modern, or some version in between.
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Ripping on Bodice Rippers
The other evening I was dining with a batch of old friends from the comic book business. As conversations do, the talk turned to what each of us was working on, and thus to my long stint in romances. An otherwise nice fellow made the mistake of asking me about “bodice rippers.” I almost leapt across the table to throttle him. He was taken aback by my impassioned annoyance.
It’s a sore spot with most romance readers (and writers and editors) that most non-romance readers pick up an ignorant, pejorative term for our genre—a pejorative term foisted on us by the hostile and patronizing mass media—and continue to use it decades after that particular appellation could possibly apply. “Gothics” in fact kept being used until “bodice rippers” came into fashion even though the gothic trend was long over by then and it had been years since the last nightgown-clad governess ran away from a dark castle on the cover of a book. And anyway, not every romance was a gothic even when gothics were big.
“Bodice rippers” was actually a correct description of a vogue in historical romances published in the 1970s. (My male friend obviously hasn’t noticed anything about romances since then.) The media made up that term for a specific trend in romances that was launched by Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, along with Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers. Another term for it was the “rape saga, ” but that was not an accurate description of all these books. Woodiwiss’s acclaim probably reached its height with Shanna, the first original trade paperback historical romance, which received a major marketing push and became a big bestseller. These books were very popular because they had sex in them. Nothing like what readers are used to now, though. And these books had what we would now view as an antique attitude towards sex, because the sex was pretty much forced on the heroines. At first, anyway.
Bodice rippers were historical novels in which the hero got the heroine in bed against her will initially, but things worked out well for them by the story’s end. At the same time as these stories of reluctant romance were being published, an ugly, double-pronged sub-genre of bodice rippers sprang up. In one version, the heroine was hot to trot; she had the morals and heart of a courtesan, and the story was just a series of cheap, crudely described erotic encounters as she lived the life of an adventuress. Presumably it was a way of dealing with the change in our society that said it was okay for women to have sex with men and like it. Few of these books are in print now and justifiably so. Not many people really want to read about a slut as a heroine.
In the other version, the true “rape saga,” a complete stranger raped the previously innocent heroine. These stories clearly had an ogre figure representing ugly lust. At one time I remember joking to a friend of mine that the same fat, middle-aged merchant raped every heroine in every book. But it wasn’t funny. These heroines were living difficult lives and suffering realistically harrowing events. The heroines were thrown into a very unsafe, picaresque world of gypsies, whores, rogues, thieves, courtesans, and brigands of all descriptions. Often the heroine spent time as the kept woman of one nasty man, then more time as a kept woman of a different nasty man, plus chapters in bordellos as the helpless toy of an out-and-out villain. During all this, the heroine found her true love and lost him over and over. She usually bore a child or two, since the stories took place in historical times when birth control was not readily available. And she married once or twice, sometimes marrying while despairing that the first husband was dead but later discovering he was alive. This was a survivor story that no one today would consider a romance. A very negative world view dominated, but the heroine was still a good person throughout. Still, the events were naturalistic, not idealistic. People behaved badly. This kind of story found its core popularity with the audience for mainstream fiction, not for romances. The heroines of these novels were stubborn survivors, women who were used and abused by men, raised high by them and cast low, but who always held their heads high and fought for whatever a woman could realistically achieve in a society in which men could own women and degrade them for fun and profit, and think nothing less of themselves for so doing. Despite all the vicissitudes these heroines suffered, eventually they found or were reunited with their true loves. These women created strong social support systems of devoted servants or relatives. They had children. And they ended up with land and money. So these women became survivors.
These survivor books had nothing romantic to the rapes. Nothing. But others in the bodice ripper genre conflated forced sex with love. It was a very curious mixture and reflected the confusion of the social times and the isolation both of romance readers and of romance writers. At the time, romance writers were writing in a lonely vacuum, not knowing or talking to each other and having no national or local organizations. And many men were writing these stories under female pseudonyms, so the honesty of the female point of view expressed within is in some doubt. But soon romance readers and romance writers started talking to each other through various forums, including fan magazines, writers’ organizations, and conferences. And when they did, a fierce debate over rape in romances began.
Because, you see, during the bodice ripper vogue, nobody was asking readers if they were reading these books because of the rapes or in spite of them. The hot news was that there was sex in the books. The sexual truths certainly appealed to readers. Even the social truths. But most romance writers themselves expressed repugnance for stories in which rape is described as something acceptable. And most romance readers, when actually asked, said the same. On the other hand, all of them understood the appeal of an ardent, possibly dominating male who coaxes and convinces a heroine to give in to the desire she feels for him. Still, in the past 30 years, heroes have been more constrained not to use violence or the threat of violence against a heroine. And to honor her right to say no. Back then, not so.
The bodice ripper vogue eventually tanked, as all fads do. What remains is the modern historical romance as we know it. Historical romance heroines often have to fight with their heroes to get what they want or need, but the basic relationship is or becomes mutually respectful. There sure aren’t a lot of ripped bodices in the modern historical. But ignorant people (mostly men, but also some women who never read romance and who do not like idealistic stories) still call romances bodice rippers. Given that the hottest trend currently is paranormal romance, we can safely assume that these patronizing-yet-ignorant people will soon start calling all romances by some bastard name for paranormal. I will try not to leap across tables to throttle them.
Friday, June 01, 2007
The Marriage of Convenience
Why is marriage of convenience such an enduringly popular romantic theme despite the fact that marriage as a life goal is losing popularity? Why like such a story? Maybe the simplest reason is that it’s a very efficient means of getting the hero and heroine into the same building, indeed, the same bedroom, for much of the tale. And their being constantly around each other leads to a very intimate relationship. Living with someone on any terms is intimate. The best romance is about the development of intimacy, both physical and emotional. In real life, a courtship is a series of meetings. The marriage of convenience compresses these meetings by establishing just one house (or mansion or castle or estate) as the basic physical setting.
Another reason, for those of us raised in restrictive cultures, is that the sanction of marriage allows a woman to have sexual thoughts and desires and even needs without the reader thinking she’s bad or of low moral fiber. She might have these thoughts as an unmarried woman and either she or the reader could think less of her. But once she has gone through a form of marriage with the hero, no matter how businesslike and cold the marriage is, she is freed from the hypocritical sexual restraints of her upbringing. Or at least, from most of them. The sexual tension thus comes more from what the woman wants or does not want (sex in marriage) than from what the woman thinks she should not want or is not allowed to have (sex before marriage). Although many marriage of convenience stories are really about the deflowering of a virgin bride, reluctant or otherwise, others are about more mature sexual issues. The marriage situation opens the door to the bedroom and actually makes it the primary battlefield of the relationship.
A third reason to like marriage of convenience stories is that they often show the struggle a new bride has to create her place in a family. In cultures in which newlywed couples live by themselves and lead lives far different from their parents, maybe this isn’t an obvious issue. But in cultures where the couple must live with or very close to parents, extended family such as aunts, cousins, sisters, brothers, or more, the bride’s necessity of fitting in with this new family and yet making her own place as a person is critical to her future happiness. Her husband can play a pivotal role in her family success, or he can sabotage it. Or, in the course of the story, he can change from one behavior to the next. Forging a good relationship with in-laws or stepchildren is a very important aspect of a woman’s life. (I remember an old Rock Hudson movie in which the heroine was separated from Rock behind the Iron Curtain for years. When she finally was reunited with him, she had to figure out how to create a relationship with her own daughter, and there was fighting with another female figure in the home as well. An appeal to Rock got the heroine nowhere; he told her that it was her business. A pre-feminism kind of division between a woman’s life and a man’s even though they lived in the same house.) A marriage of convenience can cover some very significant territory in a woman’s life beyond that of the core relationship with the husband.
And a final reason to like marriage of convenience stories is that they are about power. Every transaction between a man and a woman is about power as much as it is about love or sex or money. In the typical marriage of convenience, the woman is constrained to offer up her physical self (let’s face it, she is prostituted) to a man because of monetary imperatives. Maybe she’s in dire poverty; maybe it’s her family that is selling her. Maybe an inheritance depends upon her marrying this man, even briefly. Maybe the marriage is to protect the honor and good reputation of the parties involved. (In modern times, protecting one’s honor by marrying seems an antique idea. But people still do marry when an unexpected pregnancy is involved. And I am sure that marriages made to protect the reputations of the man and woman involved are still important in some places in the world.) The marriage of convenience also constrains the man. He is no longer able to continue his bachelor ways. (If he does, he often faces censure.) He has to consult the wishes of this woman whom he hardly knows. His relatives and his social world also weigh in on their opinion of her, so even if at first he does not care about her, her social acceptance becomes an extension of his own and thus important to him. The meat of the story is the main characters’ struggles with themselves, with each other, and with their wider world. Whereas usually one party to the forced marriage is at a power disadvantage at the story’s beginning, by the end, they have reached equilibrium. A real marriage has been created
The best writers can make marriage of convenience a fascinating dance of entwined personal and social and even sexual issues. Merely competent writers tend to focus just on sexual battles, often fueled by insecurity and social competition (i.e. the other woman who interferes with the marriage). But I confess I like them all. The marriage itself, no matter how hollow it starts out, gives the heroine a stake in what happens that no other romance situation has. And it also gives the situation a basic limitation, that this story is about this marriage, that appeals to me as creating the unity that the ancient Greek playwrights cited as key to good drama. So bring on that hoary old plot line!
Monday, July 30, 2007
Years ago, I was surprised when an English professor firmly stated that women’s novels all had recipes in them. Because, shockingly, the very novel I was reading at the time, a romantic suspense tale, had a recipe in it. I was even more surprised because this professor was very boring and I had made the mistake of believing that he had no useful insights to share. He was boring chiefly because of his lecture delivery. Every sentence he said ended with him slowing down the pace of his words and dropping his speaking volume. After lunch, a class with him sent me straight to sleep. On the other hand, I discovered from a yearbook that 15 years before he had been the hot young prof that all the kids liked, and was voted most popular. And he still was kind of quirky in an interesting way. He showed up late for class one day saying he had been watching a soap opera. So I should have known better. But I was an arrogant kid, or is that an oxymoron?
I took a writing course with him and was deflated when he pointed out that something I included just for effect in a story could not have that effect because it was not true. I frankly had stolen the idea from a comic book I had read. To my surprise, when I sent my story to a friend who also read comic books, he too said my idea did not work because it was not true. But we had both read the very comic in which this idea had been used! What was going on? Two radically different sources were telling me what my own intellect told me when I first read that comic book story: This is not true, and since it is not true, the story does not work. But I let myself be persuaded while reading the comic book story. My English prof and my friend were not willing to be persuaded by mine.
The recipe for a good story has to be the truth. Even when what is being created is a work of fiction, we expect most elements to be true and believable in the circumstances of the story. We expect to be convinced. If we aren’t convinced because the story has an obvious flaw, then we tend to drop out of the make believe experience. If the story has more than one obvious flaw, this drop out is almost certain.
That happened to me last year while watching the Superman movie. Superman has super powers, among which is super hearing. So he can do things that ordinary people cannot do; that’s the whole point about him being Superman. In theory, he could find Lois Lane anywhere in the world just by listening for the sound of her voice. But not in this movie. She had to use a FAX—already outdated technology—to let Superman know where she was, sort of. And why? Because she couldn’t call or text message him because she wasn’t carrying her cell phone. Don’t get me started on the likelihood that a reporter would not be carrying her cell phone.
I once met a writer who insisted on putting modern bathrooms in her historical novels. I remonstrated with her, but she claimed that really rich people could have had bathrooms even back in 18th century France. She did not want to hear the truth, that regardless of wealth, bathrooms as we know them were not in existence then. The problem with her stubborn determination to include an anachronistic situation in her story was that it kept jarring me right out of the make believe. Not only were there bathrooms in her chateaux, but the characters used them. The blatant historical error was front and center. About two more steps of disdain for the truth, and she might have shown Marie Antoinette tooling around Paris in a Chevy.
When reading a romance, or viewing any work of fiction, the first question we ask is, do we believe this story could happen? If the writer does not set up the situation and the characters in a reasonably logical manner, the reader might not even get past the first page. Failing to maintain it, making characters act below their abilities or inconsistently, destroys suspension of disbelief, and readers bail halfway through. Lots of people talk derogatorily about romances being formula writing, but they aren’t thinking about what a formula is. It’s a recipe. And a recipe is a carefully concocted, balanced group of ingredients that act upon each other in a predictable manner if the directions are followed fairly exactly. If you forget the baking powder, your cake won’t rise. If a writer forgets to put in a dramatic plot arc, nothing happens. And if the various ingredients are not correctly sized in relationship with each other, or one is stale and can’t perform its usual function, then the result is a congealed mess, not a cake. Or a story.
So my professor was correct in saying that women’s novels had recipes, and not just coincidentally. I was the one who had to learn that in writing any kind of story, there is a recipe involved. Deviating from truth, from the necessary recipe of a story, is a recipe for disaster.
And here is a food recipe that has been handed down in my family. Disregard the ingredients balance and the directions at your peril:
Emma’s Spice Cake
1 cup of butter (yes, real butter)
2 cups of brown sugar
3 eggs or 2 eggs plus 2 yolks (cholesterol? What’s that?)
1 cup of sour milk (milk can be soured by putting a teaspoon of white vinegar in it)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cloves and/or nutmeg, or ginger to taste
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
2 2/3 cups of flour
At least 8 ounces of raisins
Cream the butter and sugar and add the eggs to it.
Mix all the dry ingredients in a separate bowl.
Pour the dry into the wet and mix, alternately pouring in the milk.
Once mixed, add the raisins.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
Makes two 8 inch square layers or 24 cupcakes (much less baking time if cupcakes).
This is a heavy cake that deserves a rich frosting such as a cream cheese, but doesn’t need it. Plain, it’s delicious hot or cold in milk. Yes, of course you can make all manner of lower calorie and lower spice substitutions, but as in story writing, reduce the impact too much, and the result has no tang.
Monday, July 23, 2007
Arguably the most influential 20th century Gothic novel was Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938. But by mid-century, a host of other writers were penning romantic suspense with a strong Gothic element, and for a while it became the most popular women’s genre fiction. Phyllis A. Whitney’s period Gothic, The Quicksilver Pool, was published in 1955. In 1958, Mary Stewart’s seminal modern Gothic, Nine Coaches Waiting, came out. By 1960, when Victoria Holt’s period Gothic, Mistress of Mellyn, achieved bestseller status, the Gothic romantic suspense novel genre was truly launched. Gothics would dominate library collections and some bestseller lists for the next ten years. And numerous paperback reprints were supplemented by additional paperback originals by the likes of Elsie Lee, Dorothy Eden, and others. Many were reprints from overseas. (Additionally, to make hay while the sun shone, publishers repackaged older novels with suspense elements, including the entire oeuvre of 1930s bestselling suspense writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, as if they too were Gothics. I remember buying one with a cover blurb describing a typical Gothic setup and discovering on reading it that the blurb was a complete lie. I enjoyed the book anyway, but it was not a Gothic.)
The Gothic novel had its standard situations, usually the love story of an awkward, plain, Jane Eyre-like heroine who came to a mansion as a governess and ended up marrying the lord of the manor. This happy ending only occurred after she risked her own neck and suffered a number of vicissitudes in order to resolve some longstanding problems and uncover some old secrets.
Chiefly these were problems of the hero. The theme of the cursed man was key in the Gothic romance setup. Like Rochester in Jane Eyre, the Gothic hero had a secret, and it was always a nasty one. Again like Rochester, sometimes the hero was injured, even crippled. In fact, as it developed in the next years, frequently the hero was married at the time the heroine entered his household. Often he was some kind of tormented artist. Other times, he was just tormented. Not to mince words, if the hero’s wife was alive, she was always an Evil Bitch from Hell. She tortured the husband who had been stupid enough to marry her for her looks or for her pregnancy years before. She was unfaithful and gloried in it. And she was also a cold or hostile mother to her neglected child. Sometimes she was outright murderous. If she was dead, she was all of the above, or just an ineffectual wimp that somebody murdered. The Gothic heroine was kind to the hero and to his lonely child. In the process of winning them over, the heroine also won over various crusty or embittered household retainers, and assorted extended family relatives.
But there was usually a villain out to get her, to keep the secrets hidden. Sometimes it was a romantic rival for the hero. Sometimes it was an outright villain in sheep’s clothing. One of the most common situations in a Gothic romance was a near-death experience, supposedly an accident, happening to the heroine. But the hero simply did not pay attention. Worse, he or others in the household would accuse her of dreaming or imagining or making it up. One does not imagine a ton of carved stone gargoyle dislodged just as one passes under. But in Gothic after Gothic, that’s how the heroine was treated, as if her words and her experiences were of no merit. This surely mirrored how women were feeling in our culture at that time, that their intelligent observations were being ignored or pooh-poohed as female hysteria. It’s not coincidental that the heroine of a Gothic novel comes to a rotten situation, is the only person to see things as they are, and yet is either attacked (by the secret enemy) or laughed at (by those unwilling or too sunk in despair to change).
The Gothic heroine was always a catalyst. A bad situation might have held for decades before she showed up. But then once she started poking her nose into the family secrets and the messed up family dynamics, all hell broke loose. Hence the attacks on her. In addition to curiosity about old secrets, she brought love into the equation. She fell in love with the hero. She loved his child. But since someone else did not, the conflict between love and repressed hatreds caused a dramatic conflagration. This fire, often literally a house fire (as in Rebecca), burned out the nasty secrets of the past and freed the hero to start a sane and loving new life with the heroine.
Gothic novels were fine in their day, but most of the dramatic family situations a Gothic heroine encountered would not exist in today’s society of no-fault divorce and DNA science. True, in a period story, neither would come into play, but a large number of the Gothic novels were set in contemporary times. Which by now is half a century ago. Another societal change that would make the typical Gothic story hard to believe is the level of sexuality between men and women without a lifelong commitment. Those old Gothics had at most one passionate kiss per book. Compare that to our modern habit of open sexual relationships and imagine a Gothic heroine arriving at the scary mansion, having sex with the wrong man (who is secretly a multiple murderer) and then having sex with the right man, the hero. Maybe it could make a chick lit novel. But it wouldn’t be a romance, because romance values remain pretty much the same as they always were: the serious stuff is reserved strictly for the hero and heroine. That means a formerly randy hero suddenly becomes celibate once he meets the heroine. And that certainly forbids the heroine to make the mistake of going to bed with the Gothic hero’s insane half-brother, that angelic-looking pastor who secretly murders people! As beloved as Gothic novels were to a whole generation of women, it’s easy to see why it is difficult to write them for today’s readers. Good men are no longer stuck married to rampantly unfaithful women (if they ever were). Men even can win custody of their children in a divorce. And DNA testing can assure a doubting hero about the paternity of the child he is raising as his own. As for the heroines, women are no longer used to being ignored and laughed at in our culture. They also tend to have better job prospects than becoming a governess.
Gothic novels published in hardcover followed the fashionable non-representational style of the day, and often just featured a moody painting of a gigantic old mansion. Few or no people were visible. But Gothic paperback book covers often had the heroine on the cover. It has become a cliche that such romances always showed a white nightgown-clad heroine fleeing a massive old house that had a light shining from just one window. Truth is, very few did, as can be seen from some samples from the big name authors of the day.
Incidentally, as serious as Gothic novels were, one of the most memorable I ever read was a sly sendup of the genre, Sweet Jael, by an author who also wrote serious Gothics, Sarah Farrant. Makes for hilarious reading.
Looking at my collection of old Gothics reminds me how much fun they were. If you have time to ferret out some of these titles from libraries and used bookstores, or even find some new editions, you’re in for some excellent storytelling.
Friday, July 20, 2007
Wedding Traditions: Love ’em or Hate ’em?
One day recently I was driving through the historic part of a small city, and saw a horse and open carriage going along with a bride and groom in it. Chance-met brides always make me smile. I love looking at their finery, and I absolutely adore seeing the bridesmaid choices, and the little flower girls and ring bearers in their tiny versions of adult clothing. I will never forget one wedding party I saw outside a church once that featured twelve bridesmaids and twelve ushers, in four pastel groups of three men and women each wearing the same colors. The women’s gowns and hats were color matched with the men’s cummerbunds, ties, and boutonnieres, contrasting with formal light gray suits. They looked spectacular.
If you want to see some finery in the flesh, you don’t have to attend a wedding or hang out in a hotel on a Saturday evening. You need look no farther than any large public park, botanical garden, or arboretum on a weekend afternoon. In many cities there are certain garden spots where the locals traditionally go for their formal wedding photo shoots. And not just weddings, but prom and quincerera and engagement photos. I came upon a couple once having photos taken of them with their new car!
It’s only recently that Bridezilla weddings have become so talked about, but trust me, bridesmaid’s dresses have always been a trial. Put people in uniform and all you notice is their body type differences. So the bridesmaids end up being a parade of body types in pastel gowns, and all anomalies look bad, whether weight or height or hair style. As brides have themselves gotten more crazy over their wedding details, they seem to have become more vicious towards their attendants. The People Magazine Amazing Real Life Weddings special even has a section to which former bridesmaids can submit photos of themselves in their frumpy gowns, called “Top Ten Ugliest Bridesmaids Dresses.”People digitally disguises their faces, but the gowns are shown in all their hideous detail. Check it out on line. It’s a hoot. The absolutely worst bridesmaids’ gowns I’ve seen at a wedding I actually attended were wretched two-tone gowns that had huge ruffles and bows—and tight skirts. Not one of those unfortunate girls looked good. In fact they looked so bad I wondered if the wedding might have ended some friendships.
For those of you who don’t know what a Bridezilla is, imagine the natural nervousness of a young woman who is in charge of a large public event at which she is the center of attention. But who has never been in charge of a large public event in her life. That’s why weddings are so scary. This pressure can lead to the bride turning into a monster of selfishness. When brides become Bridezillas, they take out their desire for perfection on all around them, acting like humorless tyrants and throwing tantrums to control others. Not only do they frequently demand that their bridesmaids wear unflattering gowns, often they insist that the bridesmaids make all the accessories for the dinner tables (you know, the centerpieces and the little items wrapped in tulle and a ribbon at each place). This can be fun for some bridesmaids, but drudgery for others, and as the wedding approaches, the bride often becomes more and more high strung and unpleasant to be around and the list of demands grows. Some brides even try to make their attendants write their thank you notes! And if that isn’t enough, these micromanaging brides have been known to order friends to diet, and to refuse to include people who do not live up to their standard of beauty. And worse. Much, much worse. Advice columns are filled with the indignant questions of people who have been bushwhacked by crazed Bridezillas.
Supposedly, the average wedding in America today costs $30,000. This isn’t just inflation. As the norm for weddings has become more and more lavish, endless additional details have become routine, jacking up the total price. And more and more brides, bewildered by the complexity of all the arrangements and also determined to show off to the world, spend additional money on hiring a wedding planner to run this three-ring circus. Yet even as a child I attended a wedding at which no expense had been spared. Obviously: they let a friend’s children come! Usually, the children are the first to go as the bride runs through the list of invitees and starts multiplying the per person catering charge. Still, even back in the day, couples had a choice between elaborate plans and simple ones. I’m not talking about eloping versus a church wedding. I’m talking about having the ceremony and the reception in the back yard (to which obviously anybody could be invited without an additional charge), versus paying to take the vows in a cathedral and then hiring a hotel’s ballroom for a sit-down meal (for which a specified number of meals must be bought), a twenty-piece orchestra, and more. I heard a bride complain recently about how impossible it is to throw an inexpensive wedding, but this just is not true. The bride simply has to make choices about what must be part of the wedding festivities and what can be skipped. It may be difficult to not order every conceivable extra, but just think of the poor, exhausted guests! Who can eat or drink that much in one day? And who should?
I’ve been to a wide variety of weddings, from modest to lavish. Some in churches. Some in synagogues. Some in country clubs, hotel ballrooms, catering halls, or antique mansions and inns turned into event venues. Plus one in a cathedral. One held under an oak tree. One in a judge’s chambers. One in a back yard. One in the UN Chapel. One in a living room. And as for the receptions, where I came from it was customary to hold them in one’s own home or in a church basement or, if it was a fancy wedding, in a country club. City dwellers often hire freestanding catering halls. The venue or the lavishness of the wedding seems to have no bearing on the success of the marriage itself, though it does make a difference in how happy relatives are with the new couple. That’s why the arrangements can be so tricky. Pleasing Bridezilla just is a new trend. Pleasing everyone else related to the bride and the groom is the traditional issue.
There are conflicting cultural traditions about who pays for a wedding, but they’re all about power. Growing up, all I heard about was the bride’s family paying for everything. Then as an adult I learned about a different paradigm, in which the bride’s and the groom’s family share, thus giving the groom’s parents a chance to have a say in the arrangements—and a chance to get into a major battle with the bride’s parents. More recently, as it has become common for people to marry after they are already launched in careers, many brides and grooms foot the bill themselves. Thus giving the women the opportunity to be Bridezillas. The trouble is, Bridezillas often tell relatives what they must pay for. The groom’s family, for instance, is now often tasked with throwing an out-of-towners brunch the day after the wedding. And that can run into thousands of dollars, yet the family has little say in the event. Another sore subject discussed in advice columns.
You’ll notice that I have hardly mentioned grooms in all this. That’s because their main job at a wedding, aside from providing some of the funding and wearing whatever outfit the bride insists on, is to show up. Yet where would weddings be without them?
So, what do you think? Who should be running weddings? How can the awful bridesmaid dress problem be solved? How can we rein in crazed Bridezillas?
Monday, July 16, 2007
Epublishing and the RWA: In Opposite Corners Again
Just last week, at its annual national conference, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) announced new guidelines under which it would recognize publishers. The effect was to de-recognize various epublishers already recognized, and to block the recognition of various newer ones. (Epublishing is electronic publishing.)
The RWA has been trying to feel its way about the basis on which to grant recognition to new publishers, having gotten so confused about it that all recognition was suspended for a while. After cogitation and legal advice (from lawyers who apparently are not New York City publishing lawyers but whatever is available in the RWA’s Houston area headquarters—and that’s a mistake), they decided on new rules. The RWA has now lumped epublishers with subsidy and vanity presses and demanded actual printed books as proof of being a publisher. The cries of outrage from the membership were immediate. Maybe RWA will reconsider its position; maybe not. Its governing board is bulky and conservative. You can read the new guidelines for yourself on Lucynda Storey’s blog.
For anybody involved with an epublisher, this is frustrating. Epublishers chiefly offer books or single stories via downloads directly on the Internet. Sometimes epublishers venture into print, but often they do not have print expertise and it shows. Regardless, epublishing is not the same as subsidy publishing. Subsidy publishers demand that their writers pay some of or all of the costs of publishing their works from editorial through printing and distributing. Epublishing is not the same as vanity publishing. Vanity publishers will publish anyone who comes up with the money, although their chief stock in trade is to pretend that they are legitimate publishers with the same vast distribution networks as, say, Random House. Epublishers maintain an editorial staff that is selective about what is accepted and then attempts, through the use of other experienced professionals, to produce a professional grade final product and market it. Subsidy publishers sometimes do this. Vanity publishers almost never.
Now granted, some epublishers show a marked lack of editorial taste or skill. And some have the nerve to ask their authors to create their own covers, or to do the interior page makeup themselves, instead of actually employing graphic designers to do such work. Frankly, this seems like sheer ignorance. A reputable global firm (in India, Barbados, or Hong Kong, take your pick) would produce beautiful, professional-grade page files dirt cheap. So epublishers do make many beginners’ mistakes. Their print versions are even worse, often with muddy covers, horrible typefaces, bad page design, amateurish errors such as the copyright notice on the wrong page, and more.
Additionally, some epublishers veer into an ethical gray area by involving their writers in paying for the print versions of their books. I don’t consider this acceptable. It’s subsidy publishing. And if writers weren’t desperate to be published and to obtain RWA recognition, they might not deal with these folks at all. Another questionable practice is for epublishers to demand that their authors spend their own money to promote their book. And an even worse situation is the one in which the epublisher actually is a network marketing company in disguise. They’ll print the book, but then it’s entirely up to the author to get copies sold. Mary Kay, anyone? (Incidentally, MyRomanceStory.com practices none of these questionable policies.)
So to be honest, epublishers have a distance to travel before they will merit unquestioning acceptance as a respectable branch of the publishing industry, whether that acceptance is from the RWA, or from other writers’ organizations, or from other publishers. But what most people will agree on is that epublishing represents a publishing revolution, just as the downloading of music via the Internet represents one. It cannot be stopped, and who wants to stop it anyway?
New technology is the parent to new publishing paradigms and this is the early development period. There’s bound to be confusion for a while. What authors could use from their writing associations at this time is some help identifying which epublishers are the most professional and which are the ones whose manner of doing business is skating too close to the shady. Authors mostly can’t do this, because their are blinded by their intense desire to be published. But writers’ associations such as the RWA can. Unfortunately, they currently are washing their hands of making distinctions between epublishers. The very fact that they insist that the epublisher produce printed books is proof. It occurs to me that this is kind of like insisting that a new television network, to prove that it is television, produce a movie and market it in theaters! The secondary item is related, but it’s not the same format or process at all.
Since the RWA is a writers’ association that is particularly dedicated to helping unpublished writers become published, it ought to deal with the complete spectrum of publishers, including epublishers. The RWA could be very useful to its members by dissecting the contract terms of these newcomer publishers. Instead, the RWA insults and ignores them.
Monday, July 09, 2007
Men Have Written a LOT of Stupid Romance Comics
From time to time, someone in the blogosphere takes it upon himself to mock old romance comics. I mentioned one such episode a few months ago. That first one got me kind of hot under the collar, because frankly, mocking romance comics is shooting fish in a barrel, as well as seeming to me to be offensive to women on the face of it. It’s easy to mock romance comics because there were a lot of stupid romance comics published in this country half a century ago. And it’s offensive to women because the mockery is always directed at the heroine of the badly written story, not at the bad writing itself.
At the time, I protested and then responded logically by explaining the historical context of the story, and informing readers about the story’s various virtues as well as acknowledging its genuine flaws. But I have mellowed since then, so I’m just going to point out the elephant in the room in another such foray into patronizing humor, a recent post on another blog entitled “I Was Raised by Wolves.”
Cheap laughs abound as the blogger dissects a story of a young girl beset by the unwanted attentions, first sexual and then disciplinary, of her mother’s lovers. To complicate things, the girl and her new stepbrother fall for each other. And of course there’s another boyfriend in the picture, too. It’s a story that raises a serious issue and then slides away from it, that of sexual abuse of teenage girls by the men their own mothers bring into the home. On some level, the writer was trying to be real, but instead he took the story into silliness involving two boyfriends, which the blogger mocked by mocking the female protagonist.
After reading this nonsense, I had a rather freeing thought. When they mock romance comics, these smugly postmodern guys—it is usually guys, but sometimes gals, too, all of them proud to distance themselves from serious romance—these smugly postmodern guys are attempting to mock women, yet in reality they are mocking men.
Of course that is not their intention. Yet almost every romance comic story published in the United States fifty years ago was written and drawn by men. There may have been a handful of women who ever got to be published in a romance comic, whether they wrote it or they were hired to draw it. It was a man’s business, as were most fields fifty or sixty years ago, and women were seldom allowed to contribute. A few managed to break through. But very, very few. Think of the contrariety involved in not allowing women to share in creating fiction meant to appeal to women! But of course that is the history of our culture, and most specifically the history of romance comics.
So when these self-described postmodern people mock the heroines of romance comics, in reality they are mocking men without realizing it. That’s a kind of absurdity that is genuinely postmodern.
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Are Romance Novels Bad for You?
And no, this is not a continuation of my previous story of my collection of supposed bad habits. It just so happens that immediately after I humorously called my romance novel reading a bad habit, one of the more irritatingly perennial, stupid putdowns of romances, lamely couched as a balanced discussion in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has been launched again (see “Harm in Reading Romance novels?” —and puke). Over at Smart Bitches the straw man debate got covered a couple days ago as “Romance is Bad for You! So is Pornography! And Sex! A Two-Bitch Rebuttal to the Age Old Question” and we’ve all made plenty of reasoned responses and derogatory comments and so forth. Not to mention the ones sent directly to the publisher of the original stupid phony debate. But then someone e-mailed me the link again today and I thought, “Oh, I am so tired of this. The stupidity just keeps coming.”
Did I mention that putting down romance novels is stupid?
Well, it is. Books are not good or bad for you. This so reminds me of my youth, when I started to read comic books and learned that a psychiatrist, Dr. Frederic Wertham, had written a bestselling, influential book called Seduction of the Innocent. In it, he “proved” that comics were bad for children. He claimed that there are all sorts of nasty hidden sexual messages and nasty openly sexual situations in comic books. And then he lost me when he cited the supposed homosexual situation in Batman Comics: Batman and Robin live together and in some stories even sleep in the same room. Bruce Wayne is Dick Grayson’s “guardian.” Ominous. Also absurd. To a little kid, it makes sense that they are in the same room when the adventure begins. To the writer and artist involved, it’s also more efficient to show just one panel of the heroes being awoken to catch some criminal. Big whoop.
I always thought that it was the dirty minds of sex-obsessed adults (that would include Dr. Wertham) that made them think comics were nasty. They probably thought the entire world was nasty. Adult implications flew right over my head, of course. I was just a kid. And that’s my point. You don’t see it unless you are looking for it. And sometimes when you think you see it, you are imagining it. Still, did people believe Wertham’s sex-obsessed, absurd argument? Yes. It was titillating, and sex sells.
Sadly, that’s the same reason this current mock debate was encouraged. Sex sells. Oh, sure, the right-wing lady is denigrating the dreams and aspirations in romances and lecturing women to be submissive to their selfish husbands. And conflating romances with erotica, which, truly, is a different category of book. And the left-wing lady is damning romances with faint praise by saying, well at least women are reading, and conflating romances with erotica, which as we know, is a Different Category of Book. She’s calling romances pornography, and then saying pornography isn’t bad for people.
Oh, give me a break!
Where do these people get off judging what other people read? What they read, for gosh sakes? Or judging the books themselves when clearly they have not read them? Just stop talking about what you do not know about. Just stop telling people what to learn, or think, or dream. And stop telling them that what they do is wrong, or trivial, and bad for them to boot.
It takes a whole lot of arrogance to tell other people what to read or not read, and to judge and condemn various categories of books either explicitly or with faint praise. Romances keep taking the hit because women like them. And women are easy to blame. And women just will not behave. The Stepford Wife movement is alive and well, but somehow, its leaders can’t quite reach those of us who do not want to become slavish robots. Why? We’re busy reading romances. Stories of hope, of joy, of pain, of optimism, of the entire scope of a woman’s life experience. Sometimes just a slice of it, the good part wherein we meet a person whom we admire, and settle in for a life of love and work. This is not bad for us. Maybe it’s even good, because if happiness can be visualized, it can be attained. (At least if you believe the self-help books, another category of book that is alternately flogged as overly miraculous or complete twaddle.)
Reading romance novels will not rot your brain, or use up time that you would have spent doing supposedly better or more important things. People do not sit down and ask themselves, “Shall I perform pro bono brain surgery on the indigent, OR shall I read a romance?” “Shall I comfort the dying, OR read a romance?” “Shall I start a nuclear war, OR read a romance?”
Romances will not lead women to look at their imperfect husbands and despise them. If we despise them, it is not because we are comparing them unfavorably to an unrealistic ideal, but because of concrete reasons based in reality. And plenty of us admire as well as love them very much, thank you.
Nor will romances lead women to subjugate themselves against their will to a societal order that feels wrong to them. I’ve heard that idea bruited about and I’ve thought about it a lot, because like most romance readers I have read many really bad books over the years. Books in which men abused women, and the women accepted it. The answer again is No. No matter how many romances I have read in which the man is a violent tyrant and the heroine is a lame, idiotic, helpless, immature fool—who nevertheless GETS THE GUY—I have not been inspired by these books to become a whiny, helpless ninny. Or to look for a man who will beat me. I never said to myself, “Oh, that’s the secret to happiness. I’ll just pretend I am stupid, and a big, strong, rich man will love me. Maybe a prince.” Nor has anybody else. It’s just a book.
Now I must add a cautionary note. While attending a professional wrestling event years ago (do not ask me why), I listened in on some adults who seemed to believe that the bouts were completely spontaneous instead of scripted in advance. So, yes, it is possible for otherwise intelligent adults to believe in fairy tales. Still, as far as I know, neither wrestling nor romances actively cause their followers to believe. Nobody is handing out LSD with the price of admission.
So romance readers, do not listen to anyone who urges you to stop reading romance or anything else, or who disapproves of your choice of reading material. And the rest of you, stop telling people, especially women, what to read and what not to read. You are bad for people.
Saturday, August 18, 2007
Sex in Romance: Wait for It
Surprisingly, a lot of romance manuscripts have too much sex and not enough romance. I like to say they don’t have enough kisses, because usually what they are missing is the sweetness of the falling in love part of a courtship—the kisses. When you think about romance, you do not think about sex per se. You think about flowers and romantic carriage rides and moonlit kisses. Or maybe you think about overheated dance clubs, lots of ingested substances, cockeyed vision, and attractive strangers and stolen kisses outside the ladies room. There’s more than one kind of romance.
But romance needs to happen. As often as writers try to push instant sex into a story, editors take it out and demand that the characters get a chance to know each other. They must converse, conflict, and reveal who they are to the reader. It’s pretty hard to care about a hero or heroine the reader does not know. Yet I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I have read that contained an initial sex scene between people who either were strangers to each other, or strangers to the reader. Each scenario is extremely risky for a writer. To demand that the reader become instantly engaged with these characters despite lack of knowledge about them is asking for too big a leap too early in the story. To demand that the reader become a voyeur of a sex scene between strangers is to risk offending or boring the reader looking for a story, not porn. Thus an early sex scene tends to be the reverse of ideal in a romance. (Yes, a few masterful writers have pulled it off, but that has spawned imitation by far too many writers who just aren’t that good and who fail miserably.)
There still are some would-be romance writers who think that romance is all about the sex. No, no, no. Not to put too much of a feminist spin on this, that’s a classic male point of view, not a female point of view. (And many men don’t think this way. Contrary to what some people say, they aren’t all pigs.) As the writers of even the sexiest romances today have repeatedly shown, the tease is as important as the act. Modern romances usually do have sex in them. But what makes it a romance is the getting to the sex: the kisses.
A few decades ago, a hero and heroine might be so unable to openly articulate an interest in each other, let alone in having sex, that they would have to stumble physically into an embrace. Then they would lose all track of their sanity and kiss and carry on. Until the phone would ring and snap them out of it, and they would retreat from each other. Or the dryer would buzz. Reading about a dryer buzzing, while living in New York City with its dearth of laundry facilities in most apartments, was always a hoot to me. Yeah, I guess the dryer buzzing might stop some people from having sex. But I doubt it. Plot devices have gotten a good deal more subtle since then, but romance writers are still tasked with the necessity of showing that their characters desire each other, but also limiting that expression in many scenes in order to create sufficient romance. To prolong the pleasurable excitement that delay causes. And to give the reader a chance to catch up to the writer in knowing and caring about the main characters.
Sex is important, but plenty of romances would be fine without it, as long as they actually had romance. Some writers still have an imperfect understanding of what romance is. It seems simple enough, but a romance is a courtship. It’s the development of a stable intimate relationship. Years ago, the institution of marriage itself was supposedly the happily ever after. Now, we take things further and ensure that the hero and heroine are suited to each other and likely to be happy together.
Back to kisses. Really. Kisses. In a truly intimate relationship, the desire to kiss is relatively constant. We see old married couples kissing each other frequently. And the impulse to kiss is also relatively unchecked. At least if one lives in a society that allows public displays of affection. What the writer is trying to create in a romance is a relationship that grows from two people each in their own private space to two people who are constantly visiting each other’s space in the most natural and affectionate and desirous manner: they kiss. We all have our personal boundaries. Romance is about those boundaries changing. And that’s another reason why sex as such is not as necessary as kissing is initially. But it also explains why sex eventually is necessary, because it is the ultimate in crossing physical boundaries.
As parents we often urge our children to wait for their pleasures. We try to teach them that instant gratification is not as deeply satisfying as delayed gratification. And the people we consider the most mature individuals in our society are those who master delayed gratification. So it stands to reason that in romances we also expect a delay in gratification, with a deepening of the central emotional relationship as the payoff. It works. Every romance has its own pace, but waiting for the culmination of a building relationship is one of the great pleasures in reading romance. And enjoying all the kisses along the way is, too.
So, when you’re considering writing a romance, make the effort to tell a story in more than one breath. Allow events to unfold at their correct speed, and save something for later. And meanwhile, put in those kisses!
Why Gothic Romance Comics Stumbled
Gothics have been on my mind lately. The original Gothic novels were written in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England and thus are part of a well-described literary tradition. Yes, they were popular novels, but the handful still being studied in colleges are considered literature. These include such classics as The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Melmoth the Wanderer. Then there was the mid-20th century Gothic romance vogue. While hardcover Gothic romance novels were making the bestseller lists and being bought by libraries in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, original and reprint paperbacks with Gothic heroines flooded drugstores and other nontraditional book outlets.
You would think there also would have been Gothic romance comic books. But comics seem to be inspired by a less literary take on popular culture, in fact a more visual take. They are much more likely to spring up after a successful movie or TV show or some widely-covered visual media event. Another possible reason for the dearth of romance comics about Gothic mansions and beleaguered governesses might be that at the same time as the Gothic novel vogue, there was the nurse romance vogue that came straight from hit television. Yes, the TV shows were about doctors, but it was easy to turn that around and do stories about nurses. So comics opted for the nurse stories instead of the Gothics.
There have been movies identified as Gothic—“Rebecca,” for instance, and “Leave Her to Heaven,” and “The Queen Bee.” But these were about female monsters. For instance, in “Leave Her to Heaven,” the main character is the murdering, conniving, crazy woman, not the sweet sister. And we all know that Rebecca, who dominated people’s lives even after her death, was a nasty piece of work. These stories written circa 1940 had their imitators, but they were not genre romances. It took another decade and more before Gothic novels as romances would evolve. Victoria Holt’s bestselling Mistress of Mellyn was optioned by Paramount, but the movie never happened. Worse, Mary Stewart’s lovely romantic suspense in Greece, The Moon-Spinners, was eviscerated and turned into a teenage adventure for Hayley Mills. And that’s about it for movie treatment of mid-century Gothic romances.
But there was “Dark Shadows,” the hit TV soap opera. It even had an imitator, “Strange Paradise.” (Yes, I watched it. It was bad.) But these were soap operas, not romances. When one thinks of “Dark Shadows,” one thinks of Barnabus Collins, the vampire, not of any female characters. So to get from soap opera about a vampire (and a werewolf, too, if I remember it right) to romance, the comics needed a romance paradigm. But it existed only in books. Instead, they copied the soap opera’s horror element and did stories about vampires. Thus comics, so sensitive to media that is visual, did not have any direct guideposts towards Gothic romances even as they produced more Gothic material.
Eventually, after the Gothic romance novel vogue was in its death throes, the comics started featuring some cover art by Neal Adams and others that referenced the Gothic novel cover style. The first was for House Of Secrets #88—but HOS was a horror anthology comic. No romance there. A few other HOS covers had a touch of the Gothic romance influence because they featured a woman in jeopardy. But also including a demon or a green ghostly hand gave a strong indication that horror was the focus, not romance. There’s a nice site called Cover Browser that shows these. But perhaps as proof of how obscure Gothic romance comic books were, that site does not list the several titles that eventually were published that were actual Gothic romance comics.
Finally, DC Comics launched The Sinister House of Secret Love and The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love in the summer of 1971 (The cover dates say the fall, but comics always used to be printed with a cover date months in advance of their actual on sale date.) And Charlton Comics published Haunted Love in late 1972 with a 1973 cover date. To make these titles even more obscure, the Comics Code Authority, the comics industry’s self-censorship group, decided that the houses in the DC titles sounded too much like brothels. So the titles were changed to Secrets of Sinister House and Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion. But it was all in vain. The audience that ate up Gothic romances a decade earlier was not looking for comic books to read, or even for more Gothics.
Even had the market timing of these three Gothic romance comics been right, they had other strikes against them. The covers tended to emphasize a woman in jeopardy from the supernatural, indeed, from the horrible. Most Gothic romance novel covers were far more restrained. Some just featured a large mansion, and others just had a woman and a dark cast to the cover. No heroes. The Gothic romance comics did have potential heroes on the covers, but only in the background as shadowy, usually unattractive, and often menacing figures. This was very different from the typical romance comic covers that would portray both a woman and the man she loved and describe a romantic dilemma in the accompanying copy. So these comic books were not signaling strongly to the female audience that already existed for romance comic books. Unlike nurse romance or other romance covers, there were few handsome men in evidence on the Gothic romance comic covers. Any kisses were usually “The Kiss of Death” and not shown. When the cover of Haunted Love #1 actually showed a kiss, it was from the villain—an old man—who was forcing a repulsive kiss on the heroine who says she hates him. This is not attractive. This is not romance, Gothic or otherwise. Some of the stories inside these comics were reasonable approximations of Gothic romance novels. But since Gothic novels were typically narrated in the first person, but these comics typically were heavy on action by the male characters, the effect was not the same. I can’t say that even one of those stories touched me, yet I can easily recall many other romances, Gothic and otherwise, novels and comics.
Looking back on the mistakes made by the comic book companies in totally missing the moment on the popular literary fashion, and then messing up Gothic romance comics, I realize that I have been blaming the dense all-male establishment that ran comics, including the artists and writers, too. Probably none of whom read Gothic romance novels. But what I did not understand until now was the importance of a visual medium crossover. During the many years I worked for the major comic book companies, I visited bookstores right around the corner from their offices on almost a daily basis. But in all those years, I ran into exactly two people from the comic book business in a bookstore. Contrast that to opening day on Broadway for any action/adventure movie. I could always find half a dozen comic book pros in line. They were visual, not literary oriented. It’s funny—maybe even ironic—but in this case, “lack of vision” actually describes the situation correctly.
Friday, August 17, 2007
Comic books and genre novels have always derived directly from popular culture, usually directly or indirectly from other media such as movies and TV programs. So it’s not surprising that in the early 1960s, when there were two hit TV shows featuring romantic doctors, “Ben Casey” and “Dr. Kildare,” there were more nurse romance comics published then ever before or since. At the same time, nurse romances in paperback originals also were at their most widespread.
There had been both before. Undoubtedly, the popular stage musical and movie, “South Pacific,” whose heroine was a nurse, inspired some. But “South Pacific” was a 1950s phenomenon. And Cherry Ames, whose nursing adventures were serialized in books as were the Nancy Drew stories, wasn’t in itself a big enough media event to cause the sudden blossoming of nurse romances. So it is more likely that the glut of nurse novels and the handful of nurse comics of the early 1960s were the direct result of the hit TV doctor programs. Television was at its most universal; by then most families had TVs. Since there were only three networks and the occasional local station, the mass audience for any show was in the dozens of millions. Contrast that to today, when a cable network will declare something a hit if it has a mere one million viewers. A couple of hit TV shows then could cause plenty of popular buzz and imitators.
For women who liked the darkly handsome, beefy type, there was Vince Edwards as Dr. Ben Casey. And for women who preferred the more lean and restrained blond type, there was Richard Chamberlain with bleached hair as Dr. Kildare. Magazines of all sorts ran thousands of photos of them and the usual silly articles. But that was not enough. A plethora of romances, almost all of them slim paperback originals, were rushed into publication featuring nurses as the protagonists. (There actually were a couple of nurse TV shows later, “The Nurses,” and “Julia,” but they were not romance oriented.) These romance novels and comics did not star doctors because men did not read romances, and women back then usually were nurses, not doctors themselves. (Yes, there were newspaper strips featuring each of the TV doctors, Ben Casey, drawn by Neal Adams, and Dr. Kildare, drawn by Ken Bald. Again, not romances.)
I’m too young to know what actual nurses were doing in the early 1960s, but according to the titles of these books, many of them were Private Duty nurses, Airport nurses, Dude Ranch nurses, Campus nurses, World’s Fair nurses, Amusement Park nurses, etc. They were helping doctors in clinics, in factories, at Cape Canaveral, at logging camps, in small towns, and oh, yes—at hospitals. Some nurses were students struggling to learn the ropes. Some were experienced in their field. Some fell for cranky doctors. Others for the boy next door. But all of them were young women whose profession entitled them to a degree of respect, tempered by the authority of a rigid power structure above them. Those “R.N.” initials (for “Registered Nurse”) were important because at the time, that was the highest level of professional credential a nurse could attain. Today we have nurse practitioners, who are only a step down from doctors themselves. And we have lots of female doctors. But a registered nurse was a big deal in the tiny niche of women’s professions back then.
Harlequin already had a long history of publishing nurse romances by the early 1960s. It continues to do so to this day. Its most popular author of all time, the late Betty Neels, wrote nurse romances and that’s about it. Usually, her nurse heroines were in love with rather brusque and unromantic, often distant and cold doctors. But eventually, true love triumphed and they found each other. Harlequin did not have a large presence in the US in the early 1960s, not even alongside the paperback originals sold exclusively in drug stores and other non-book shops. So let’s not talk more about Harlequin, because when it came to choosing a nurse romance, the Harlequin books were not commonly available for comparison. Instead, offerings by Ace Books, Dell Candlelight, Popular Library, MacFadden, and many other major and minor American paperback publishers flooded the paperback book outlets. A good source that shows just how many publishers were involved is the University of Wisconsin’s Nurse Romance Cover of the Week site.
Nurse romances as novels tended to contrast one kind of suitor with another. In Ski Resort Nurse, by Jane L. Sears, for instance, the heroine has the opportunity to marry a very wealthy man. He temporarily sweeps her off her feet with his display of power and glamour. But he turns out to have a fatal flaw, and she goes back to the earnest young doctor she really loves. It’s virtually the same setup in story after story, probably reflecting the reality that most nurses did not come from upperclass social settings and the readers of such romances could not imagine their nurse heroines climbing the social ladder so precipitously. Also, back then, it was considered a virtue to marry the poor but honest man. In today’s more openly materialistic American society, I wonder if that would still play?
Scholarly sites and nursing sites take nurse romances seriously, tut-tutting over the potentially negative stereotypes of nurses portrayed in these stories, but largely passing over the social dynamics in them. The typical nurse’s anomalous position as having authority but also limited by authority, for instance, is scarcely mentioned.
There were nurse romance comic books, but not a lot. Charlton Comics published a half-dozen nurse romance comics using their typical dreadful production values and so-so writing. The occasional good bit of artwork by Dick Giordano of later superhero comic fame was always a surprise. Scott Shaw’s Oddball Comics site describes a one-shot nurse romance title from Charlton, Registered Nurse. It featured Cynthia Doyle, a character used in another of their titles, Cynthia Doyle, Nurse in Love, one of whose covers is on the Cherry Ames web site.
The In/Visibility of Nurses in Cyberculture web site mentions more nurses in the comics, including Betsy Crane, Linda Carter, Linda Lark, and more. But there aren’t any details about their stories, and finding obscure romance comics today is like looking for a needle in a haystack. I wish people would put more information about them on the web.
An excellent roundup article appears on the Nursing Spectrum web site, “Comic Book Care — A History of Nurses in Comic Books” by Don Vaughan.
Lois Lane’s fashionable volunteer work in a hospital, complete with nurse’s uniform, is given mention in this article. But I did not find any notice taken of the straight on nurse romances that appeared in DC Comics, chiefly the beautifully drawn and achingly romantic series in Young Love, “The Private Diary of Nurse Mary Robin, R. N.” Mary’s tearful romantic adventures made the cover of Young Love Comics pretty much every issue for a year or so. But alas, Mary kept losing her true loves. Gorgeously drawn by Johnny Romita (of later Spider-Man fame), each of these short romantic tales featured different locales and different love interests, ending more or less unhappily with Mary uncoupled even if other characters walked off together. Supposedly, she finally found and kept her true love, but an appealing element of the series was that she repeatedly fell in love and lost her love, and then tried again. This is unheard of now in romances, where the happily ever after ending dominates.
The last attempt at nurse romance comics was in the 1970s, when the vogue was long over and most of the female audience for comics had drifted away. Night Nurse, from Marvel Comics, was a curious amalgam. True to the concerns of the early 1970s, the stories put strong emphasis on social issues and criminal elements as well as on romantic dilemmas. But Night Nurse was drawn by a romance artist, Winslow Mortimer, who specialized in very soft-looking, ultra-feminine heroines. So its heroines (there were three) tended not to pack much visual punch. It was like watching a kitten try to cope with a rotweiller. The title was canceled quickly, probably too quickly for detailed sales reports to trickle in. And so ended nurse romances in the comics.
Nurse romances survived as a subgenre of romance novels, much changed of course from the stereotypes of the early 1960s. Today the subgenre is generally referred to as medical romances and features modern male-female dynamics, with the heroine as likely to be a doctor as to be a nurse or some other medical professional. Yet despite the recent success of TV medical series such as ER and Gray’s Anatomy, there has never been a widespread resurgence of the fashion for medical romance.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Unbecoming Jane Austen
I really wanted to title this “Jane Austen is Spinning in her Grave,” but it seemed entirely too undignified an image for a lady whose sense of the ridiculous never veered into vulgarity.
Imagine being a witty woman who lives in a smug, hypocritical, and self-deluded social world, who discreetly pens novels detailing the absurdity of all she sees. And then imagine a batch of smug, hypocritical, self-deluded readers 200 years later taking all those lovingly crafted, hilarious moments, and completely misunderstanding them. Because it’s dollars to doughnuts that is what’s happening all over again with Jane Austen. And now, not with just her literary works, but with her personal life.
There’s a brand new movie out, “Becoming Jane,” [[Spoiler Alert]] which purports to tell the story of Jane Austen’s youthful brush with romance. But they made up the details. It’s based on the fact (confirmed by an existing letter she wrote to her sister) that one night at a party, Jane Austen danced with a certain gentleman a bit longer than convention dictated. She apparently hit it off with law student Tom LeFroy. But she was poor, and he was poor, at least, poor enough that neither had money with which to support a separate household, regardless of how genteel their day-to-day circumstances. Back then, the lack of an independent income meant any future together was impossible. Or might be postponed indefinitely, which was just as good as impossible. So, they did not get engaged, and they did not marry.
Maybe in real life they just danced a few times and had fun chatting now and then while he was visiting his relatives in the neighborhood. Or maybe there was more to it. In the movie, they have both irksome and flirtatious encounters, often pregnant with suppressed attraction. They fall in love. And they even kiss and openly plan to marry. But Tom’s future is under the direction of a stern uncle/patron, whose allowance also supports Tom’s family back home in Ireland. Once she realizes that eloping with Tom will doom his entire family, not just Tom and her, to poverty, Jane declines him. About 95% of all Hollywood movies would have gone for an historically inaccurate but happy ending. This movie does not. In fact, it even goes so far as to show the Jane character 15 or 20 years later, an old maid with graying hair, dressed in an unbecoming gown, meeting her married true love again. She even wears the same gown that the real Jane Austen wore in the one portrait of her known to be genuine. (But the real Jane, being plumper, looked right in it. This Jane, being the usual waiflike Hollywood actress, was swimming in the unflattering costume.) The story ends without a marriage, just as Jane Austen’s life did. That should count for something, shouldn’t it?
I guess. There are so many little period social inaccuracies and so many bits of trite conversational shorthand to move the melodramatic plot along. Yes, of course Maggie Smith’s noble lady in this movie could easily be the model for the smugly inane Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. But nothing is subtle in this faux romance. Nothing is particularly humorous, either. I think the real Jane Austen would be disappointed at the lack of wit. And she might be outraged to learn that in this movie some of her best-known literary bon mots were first uttered by other people, thus suggesting that as a writer, she was more a copier than an inventor. Which is nonsense. The main idea one takes from the movie is that in order to become Jane Austen the wonderful writer, Jane Austen the person had to suffer a doomed love affair. Pretty much the same theme as in the opera “Tales of Hoffman,” but without the glorious, enriching music. It’s not unusual to go for the most obvious and romantic interpretation of a life. But what happened to Jane Austen the funny, funny writer? She’s almost entirely missing from “Becoming Jane.” I left the theater thinking that once again, Hollywood has settled for a simple theme about true love denied, instead of going for what is more difficult yet more accurate, the complex portrayal of a complex person. And a funny one. Sitting around the stuffy ballrooms of Regency society trading quips with the real Jane Austen would have been delicious, naughty fun. Too bad that Jane is a pale shadow in this movie.
Friday, August 03, 2007
Okay, now I have to vent.
While I was researching romances on the Internet today, I came across one of my previous essays, Write Something Good, on another Internet blog site and posted there as if it was the original writing of someone else.
Shame on you!
Of course I am flattered that the thief liked my essay so much that he/she swiped it and put it on another site. But it was wrong to do it. This is original copyrighted material, folks. Don’t mess with it without permission.
And I suppose I should be flattered that people then responded on that site about how much they liked the essay. But I’m kind of disappointed, instead. If you like my writing so much, why not tell me? Somebody went to all the trouble of cutting and pasting my essay and posting it on another blog, yet couldn’t be bothered to write and say, “Gee, nice essay. I’d like to put it up on another site.”
Here’s the kicker. When the site host was notified of the plagiarism, MyRomanceStory.com was accused of manipulating the post date on the original blog essay, in other words, lying about what had happened.
Double shame on you!
Am I going to mention the name of the blog on which this blatant thievery took place?
But it does bring up an issue I’ve been thinking about for a while. Blogging is public talk. We all know that. And you are freely invited to read these words; no site pass or login is required, no cookies are involved. But these still are my words, people, not yours. Not unless you belly up to the bar and post your comments. Then, as your words accumulate and mine become merely the lead-off to a topic, it will become your blog. This blog could also be different in a bad way. You could post lots of snarky comments, get into arguments with us and with each other, degenerate into name-calling, and so on. But that is not happening. Thank you. But think about commenting.
Meanwhile, I’m going to continue treating my blog entries as my own personal op-ed column. I’ll continue to write essays about topics that interest me as a reader, writer, and editor of romance. I hope you’ll like them. I ask you not to steal them from me or our other contributors.
Monday, September 24, 2007
Why Wealthy Heroes?
A male friend who aspires to write romance complains that most romance heroes, including our heroes at MyRomanceStory.com, are rich. And it is true; the majority of our heroes are business owners, or have high-powered careers, or come from inherited wealth. Sometimes our heroes have fortunes that they themselves built. Other times they manage the money or the business that their family owns. Some of our heroes are talents: they are chefs, singers, TV personalities, and the like. A number have professional careers such as lawyer or architect. Even our heroes who have fairly low-paying jobs such as a park ranger or a conservationist often have another financial ace in the hole like real estate profits or family money. But why?
One reason to make a hero rich is to show that he is ambitious or successful. Most of our heroes are comers, not slackers. They are men who have identified what they want to do in life and are doing it. Nothing describes a comer better or more succinctly than assets. The hero owns a business; that’s an asset. The hero has a successful career in television; that’s an asset. The hero has a track record of achievements; that’s an asset. Money simply is the easiest asset of all to describe.
The second and most compelling reason to make a hero rich is that women want rich men, again, because having money is a major definition of success. When little girls dream of a handsome prince coming to find Cinderella and marry her, they do not think about a prince whose castle needs repair or whose carriage is old and beat up. They are not looking for a loser. They think of a man who will give the heroine a better life than she already has. As a female friend just said, “Take me away from all this!” is the fantasy of the romance reader, and the purpose of the romance hero. A rich man can successfully rescue a heroine. Cinderella is rescued from a life of drudgery as an unpaid servant by her prince. The factory worker in the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman” is rescued from life in a small town with no prospects by her officer. Even Lady Diana Spencer was rescued from a life as an obscure member of the nobility by Prince Charles of England.
However, if you have noticed, lately there have been some media articles, including one in the New York Times entitled “Putting Money on the Table” citing a new situation in our country: Young women often out earning young men. A lot of young women have gotten good educations and advanced degrees and training, and are taking the world by storm. Many own their own businesses, and some even started them while they were teenagers, so they aren’t wet-behind-the-ears neophytes. These are competent women, confident women. They are achievers.
For a hero to be a match for this kind of woman, he has to be successful himself, sure of himself, ambitious himself. Otherwise, the situation is uncomfortable on both sides. Today’s young women want to throw their newfound money around, but their modest-income boyfriends either can’t match that style of spending or can’t handle the idea of a girlfriend who is richer than they are. So that’s a third reason to make our romance heroes rich. To avoid the awkward moment when it’s time to pay the restaurant check. Because awkward does not make for romance.
Given this situation, aren’t women and men changing their fantasies? No. They’re being raised the same as always. A young girl I know grew up wearing Disney princess outfits. A young boy I know plays video games every waking moment. Compare the two role players: Disney princesses tend to get rescued rather than be the rescuer. In video games, boys assume the hero’s role and try to kill vast numbers of bad guys, or they go on a quest to avenge the death of their father and save a helpless princess, and so on. So girls are being raised to dress in pink frilly outfits and wear pretend crowns, pretty much as they always have been. And wait for a rescuer. And boys are being raised on power fantasies, again as they always have been. And be the rescuer.
Despite all this gender role typing, a predictable percentage of adult young men want to become creative artists, or low-paid school teachers, or even unglamorous dentists. And an increasing number of women start major careers of their own. Yet, regardless of women’s level of ambition or achievement, role models on which they are brought up hold sway with them. Women don’t want to dream about the geeky high school guy who might someday become a rock star; they want to dream about the rock star who has arrived.
My male friend is not rich and suspects he never will be. He doesn’t really relate to all these rich guy heroes. He complains that successful career women place a heavy burden on men to be even richer. Given how we are raised, he could be right. And since fiction mirrors life’s truths, we ought to see some evidence of this change in how romances are crafted. And we do. We see stronger women, women who are their own bosses, or who are earning a living via a unique talent, or who in some way control their career destiny. And then we see men who are immensely wealthy, who control empires; in other words, who are bigger than ever. This isn’t the only paradigm, but it’s very popular.
Still, most of the time, keeping score is not necessary. Once a person has enough money to fund life’s ordinary costs and some extras, it doesn’t have to be a competition or an awkward scene. We at MyRomanceStory.com try to avoid cliché rich guys, men who are all about their money and nothing else. (Although occasionally a hero may wonder if the heroine is interested in him because of his money, we also try to avoid that cliché line of thinking.) Our heroes and heroines generally meet on a plane of financial ease. Even when a hero suffers a business change, as in “30-Day Guarantee,” it is the loss of his status as a success that threatens him emotionally; he still has plenty of money. The hero of “Gone Batty” does low-paid charity work but comes from a wealthy family. The chef hero of “Master of Fusion” is already a local celebrity and has a big career ahead of him, possibly including cookbooks and TV shows; the sky’s the limit. And that’s another ingredient of the wealthy hero concept: hope. The wealth of the hero in a romance is meant to give the reader (and the heroine) hope for a happy, comfortable future. It’s a fantasy, after all. It might as well include unlimited money!
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Bitch, Bitch, Bitch
Recently there were discussions on Romancing the Blog and on Smart Bitches about whether romance readers like strong heroines or weak ones and whether romance novels should carry labels describing their content. This inevitably fanned out to include discussion of whether readers like bitch heroines or Too Stupid to Live (TSTL) heroines.
It got me thinking about stock romance characters and what has changed in our culture. It’s pretty easy to know what is meant by TSTL. A heroine who minces along in a story, proving her vulnerable femininity by making incredibly foolish choices over and over, who thereupon has to be repeatedly rescued by the hero—well, she’s TSTL. She’s the prototype for the horror movie spoofs, who goes down into the scary basement when she knows there’s an intruder. Bad idea! Or whose inane chatter alerts the secret villain that she knows too much and must be killed. Just shut up! Or who hops in the car when the wrong guy offers a ride. Too compliant! She’s also the heroine who can be easily faked out by a phony call from a hospital saying a loved one is in Emergency. In your entire life, have you ever heard of a hospital calling to tell you something urgent? No. Hospitals call about the bill, or a recording reminds you of an appointment. But the TSTL heroine actually believes a hospital is calling when the evil villain calls to lure her out of her safe house. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
But what about the bitch? This is harder to define because in our culture, aside from “female dog,” bitch means different things to different people. Here I have to go off on a tangent and recall that when I was a little girl playing in the neighborhood and listening to the older boys talk, I came to the erroneous conclusion that “bitch” and “bastard” were the male and female of dog. Well, they aren’t. And technically, they are both insults to a woman. It used to be that calling a man a bastard was the ultimate insult because being born illegitimate (born of parents not married to each other) meant he could not inherit from his father, and his mother presumably was a slut. And since men owned the land and had all the money, being a bastard was being born with the odds against him. But this unfortunate life situation created the bastard personality, that of a man who does not approach the world with an easy, optimistic attitude, or even a set of ethics. Since he has no place in line, he doesn’t wait his turn. Instead, he grasps for what he wants. He creates his own good fortune, often by taking from others. Not a nice guy. And that’s the modern definition of a bastard, too: not a nice guy. Simple.
As for a bitch, well, thinking of dogs, she defends her children to the death, as any mother would. This could mean that if possible danger gets too close for her peace of mind, she will attack unprovoked. Honorable behavior. When translated into human female behavior, though, the definition gets twisted in many ways. A bitch is any woman who will not do whatever a man wants. Yet another definition of a bitch is a woman in a pimp’s stable of prostitutes, that is, a woman who in fact will do exactly what any man wants. Moving up from such degradation, we have the bitch who guards her family’s lives, and who might kill to help them. Thus, Lady Macbeth, who talks her husband into committing murder to gain the throne. Is it to satisfy her ambitions or his? Whichever, Lady Macbeth goes mad from the moral consequences.
And then there are the bitches of romance novels. Several major kinds. One is an almost entirely passé character, the bitchy “other woman,” the glamorpuss who threatens to take the hero from the (usually TSTL) heroine, through her expert use of makeup, hair dye, sex, and mean comments. And lying about being pregnant. And an entire repertoire of emotionally manipulative tricks. As romance heroines have themselves become more empowered and self-confident, the bitchy other woman’s powers have tended to range more in the manipulative area than in the beauty pageant competitiveness arena. Modern women in our culture are not automatically competing with other women the way the wannabes of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders do. (But by the way, may I admit to a guilty pleasure? I like to watch bits of that TV show, just to see girls with perfect bodies and lots of makeup cry. It amuses me to see the older women who are in charge—hmm…are they bitches?—pick these girls apart so ruthlessly: “Her thighs look heavy on camera.” is enough to send some girl home weeping to her small town in Texas. I love it. I wonder if that makes me bitchy? Or just the more minor “catty”?)
Back to bitches. Incidentally, I feel naughty just saying that word. Ladies were not supposed to use the word bitch when I was growing up. Only men, calling us that. Oh, well. Moving on.
The bitch heroine in the modern romance is an entirely different personage from all these previously mentioned. She can be the empowered heroine, obviously. Typically, she’s a woman with an agenda that makes other people uncomfortable. This is new territory. She wants more for herself than her mother wants for her, or her sister wants for herself. She wants more from the people with whom she works, too. Honesty, fair play, whatever. And she will fight to get what she wants. Is that where one group of bitches peel off to become bitch goddesses, women who make men crazy for them, and use them and throw them away? I’m fairly sure that Madonna has been called a bitch during her lengthy, self-motivated career. What an outrage that she uses sex to seduce audiences instead of letting sex control her! And she’s laughing all the way to the bank. But she does have to do all those body-toning exercises and keep after the apparent youthfulness of her face, not to mention update her music style constantly. She works hard for her bitch status.
But enough tangents. The cliché glamorous other woman makes a small reappearance in modern romances as the Evil Bitch Ex-Wife character. Romance heroes may be done with this woman, but she can cause trouble anyhow. But an amazing number of romance heroines just shrug off the ex-wife bitch these days. Some romance writers have indulged in catfights between the heroine and the evil bitch, but these are not popular in romances. Ladylike heroines are supposed to be above such fights. And the tough ones could make the evil bitch scream too easily, so there’s no fun in reveling in the mud. Anyway, these kinds of fights are really male fantasies.
So, what makes the modern heroine a bitch, then? There’s the type of heroine who says no to the hero when she really means yes, and she keeps it up all through the story. This happens even though she has sex with him and lets him open his heart to her. But she keeps her own heart behind a protective shield. She’s a useful character to keep a story going, because she opposes the hero. She refuses the hero’s overtures. She creates the conflict. And stories need conflict. (Otherwise, all we’d have is How Grandpa Married Grandma—a sanitized version of something that was passionate and daring and desperate at the time. Romance has to be written on the desperate edge, not as a calm memoir.) But is this character a bitch? She can be steely, icy, and irritating as hell. Why doesn’t she give in to the hero sooner? Why can’t she recognize his sincerity and his sterling qualities? But is she a bitch?
Or is the urban fantasy, kickass heroine type, the competent spy, agent, warrior, or detective the bitch? She makes waves, she has a central core of identity that is not dependent on the men around her, and she has a mission to fulfill. She knows how to use weapons and her brain, too. If she discovers she’s under some man’s control, she extricates herself. Does that make her a bitch? Have women, in fact, taken over this usually pejorative term and made it a shorthand for self-determination?
I’ve seen a lot of commentary on the web suggesting that women no longer wince away from being called a bitch, and that some in fact embrace it. But I am not sure if that ventures into the controversial n-word territory where it’s okay for me to call myself a bitch but not okay for you to do that. So I’m not going there. Because I don’t know the answers to the questions I have raised. Language and society are constantly evolving. I do know that my childhood view of the world has been modified many times and continues to change as I see the world changing. Yet it is an act of daring for the remaining child in me to use this word repeatedly: Bitch!
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
In case you’ve been dead for the last several years, an important visual art form from Japan, manga, has been sweeping our nation. Manga are comic books. The stories are generally released in anthology magazines, featuring a chapter each in the lives of a half-dozen or so continuing characters. Then when enough chapters have been created, each character’s adventures are gathered up and re-released in a separate single theme manga compilation, a paperback book.
But you probably know this. Or do you? Have you been ignoring manga the way people tried to ignore rock n’ roll? I don’t recommend ignoring major popular trends. It puts you out of touch with the mainstream of your culture. You don’t have to like a trend. But you probably should know something about it. I’m not suggesting that you torture yourself by watching every reality TV show, for instance, but it can’t hurt to know what “American Idol” is, or where Joey Fatone sprung from. And anyway, for years to come, listing the members of N’Sync will be a quiz show question.
Manga stands a good chance of becoming just as pervasive as any music or TV genre, so pay attention. Librarians say that these days the items most checked out are graphic novels. And I’m betting that manga, once the libraries carry them routinely, will surpass them in circulation. Why? Because most manga readers are female. And most book readers are female.
Maybe you think that manga are like the American comic books of the recent past—mostly written by men for men or boys. But not so. A big streak of manga are written and drawn by women. Since the writers and artists (often one and the same) have Japanese names, most of us don’t instantly realize that fact. American-origin manga are pretty much the usual by and for males stuff, emphasizing the typical themes of male interest—violence, sex, horror, and then more violence and sex and horror. Oh, well. But women share some interest in those topics, as the popularity of paranormal romance proves. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake comics, which feature a manga-influenced art style, plenty of violence, and quite a bit of sex one way or another, are currently in the top ten of graphic novel bestsellers. I don’t know if mostly women or mostly men buy Anita Blake and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we’re finally seeing a batch of comics published in this country that are about women and that are written by women and that maybe even reflect some genuine interests of women. On that last, it’s a hard call, since what Japanese women find interesting is not necessarily what American women find interesting, and the bulk of manga available in America today so far is Japanese written.
But there’s hope, since once a market has been discovered, everyone wants in on it. That’s one reason that DC Comics launched its Minx imprint. Although these are meant to be Serious Graphic Novels, they’re geared to a teenage girl market that DC Comics abandoned 30 plus years ago—but manga rediscovered. My godchild reads manga. And so does her mother.
Since I have finally stopped ignoring manga as just something my male friends read, I have felt compelled to research it. You’ve surely heard the line “We watch so you don’t have to” or a version of it. Well, I have read a big batch of manga so you don’t have to. It’s easy to do. Manga is widely available in America now. Wal-Mart carries Shojo Beat and Shonen Jump, for instance, respectively girls’ interest and boys’ interest manga anthology magazines. Bookstores carry manga compilations. Libraries have graphic novels and some already stock manga, too. In addition to imports and reprints, there now are a significant number of major American publishers creating their own manga. The material is out there. Of course it’s a big question where this is all going. So far, the answer has been straight to the top. Manga sells millions and makes millions.
Meanwhile, to the basics. Sailor Moon was probably the manga that put shojo manga on everybody’s lips. It’s the one I’ve heard references to for years. I’ve just finished reading a French translation, and my French is pretty rusty, but I definitely got the concept: Cute 14-year-old schoolgirl encounters a cat and gains mysterious powers from the moon, thus being dubbed Sailor Moon. Her real name is Bunny. Well, that’s the Japanese for you: Openly cute and not ashamed to be. Bunny is a pretty blond youngster who is always late to school, doesn’t like doing her homework, plays video games, and gets involved in some mystical adventures. She gets gifted with sparkly, bejeweled weapons to aid her in destroying the demons infesting her immediate vicinity. They’re apparently searching for that common grail of the supervillain, the Item That Gives Control of the Universe. In this case, it’s a silver crystal. It’s in the possession of a princess. Finding it involves dressing up for a ball and dancing with the mysterious glamour boy, Tuxedo, and turning into Sailor Moon—basically, getting glammed up. Sailor Moon uses her bejeweled pen, her bejeweled Frisbee (really!), and her bejeweled brooch (and maybe a few more jewels I have forgotten) to fight the bad guys. Only, she’s not sure if Tuxedo is a good guy or a bad guy. Well, that’s book one. It was charming. Pretty art. Pretty jewels. Very little of the demons—who significantly seem to inhabit previously trusted close relatives or friends.
By contrast, I was just looking at the July, 2007 issue of The Comics Journal, a very long-lasting comics fanzine. It has some thoughtful and thought-provoking articles, and numerous illustrations of current comics of many types and of historical comics material. And I was struck by how ugly the illustrations were. Sure, maybe they were badly reproduced and that explained some of it. The paper was dull and the blacks did not pop, and maybe they were low-res images to begin with. But that’s not the whole story. The selection of illustrations had very little beauty and almost zero cuteness. It struck me suddenly that one main reason I have been able to enjoy manga is that so much of it is pretty.
Call me girly because I like to see pretty things, including a clean rendering with a nice ink line. My favorite American comic books and comic strips have been those drawn with fine attention to detail and with advertising quality finish. For me, it is not enough to draw Mary Jane Watson’s hair; you must make it shine. People ought to look good in comics; that’s my opinion. Ugly exists in reality all too much, so when drawing fantasy, beauty should be a major goal. Sailor Moon is not the only pretty shojo manga. Pretty exemplifies the manga art style.
These samples of manga are very typical of manga, especially shojo manga and yaoi (supposedly gay) manga aimed at girls and women, although they also are common in shonen manga aimed at boys and men. People look pretty. Their clothes are crisp. Their hair shines. Their eyes sparkle. Males look like fashion models, impossibly wasp-waisted and pointy-chinned and debonair. The characters look attractive. This is what I like about manga.
What I don’t like is the idea that demons are all around, or that they could be inhabiting our friends and relatives. But that’s a metaphor for the strangeness of what can pass between people when trust gets mangled or broken. As such it’s acceptable as a literary device. Young children don’t really have a language to explain complex relationships, so demons work nicely.
I’m also not too crazy about a style of idolizing pre-age of consent teen girls and giving them still-childish ambitions and thoughts and then placing them in teasingly grown-up, sometimes openly sexual situations. It’s a version of pre-womanhood that depends too much on good luck or the kindness of strangers, and that has some troubling voyeuristic elements. But when I visited Japan recently and saw girls dressed up as maids and Lolitas (more on that another time), I had to admit that they were showing only about as much skin as American girls do today. Just different parts. American girls and women face similar pressures in our society as Japanese girls and women do in theirs. Manga stories touch on universal issues. Just the treatment is different.
And I think that is what makes manga fascinating. They aren’t the same old thing. What is serious in manga and what is comic and what is sexy and what is silly—and yes, what is pretty—are all different from what we in America have lately seen in any medium. But not so different that we can’t recognize many similarities in the basic human condition, including a love of sparkly jewelry and a fear of close relatives turning unrecognizable, for instance.
You don’t have to read manga. But you might like some of them.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
A long time ago, my husband read a romance novel I had lying around. He was appalled that the character I called the hero acted like a villain. The romance cliché of the day was the dominating hero and the oppressed woman. I had a hard time explaining that my seemingly helpless heroine was going to bring this arrogant guy to his knees. And that I, a feminist, was going to enjoy the process.
Though there still are some romances like that one, in which the hero has excessively hard qualities, today’s typical romance hero is considerably softened. Even the alpha male types; I doubt a man reading a romance would mistake today’s hero for a villain. Even the Navy SEALS are mannerly. In part, this is because the women in romances are stronger now than they ever have been, reflecting the improved position of women in our society. And marriage is far less important as an ideal relationship than it has ever been. Since the marriage question is no longer the magic question, the romantic relationship in romance now depends on different power dynamics. Basically, on how these two people get along, not who holds the power.
Most romance nowadays is conducted more or less between equals. The man shows his feelings along the way, too, instead of hiding them under angry outbursts or drunken binges, or whatever. He doesn’t patronize the heroine. If his behavior is suspect, he’ll beg for her trust, not necessarily demand it. If he isn’t giving her a rational reason to trust him, he’ll admit it and ask for her trust anyway. Old-style romances relied on the man’s superior strength, his social and economic power, knowledge of the world, and more. The heroine was pretty much at his mercy, and always unable to fight him on her own terms because she simply never was his equal. This led to lots of stories in which men got away with being physically cruel. (Yes, I’m referring to marital rape.) And the only effective level on which the heroine could resist was that intangible, the emotional. But today a hero who uses such power over a heroine is seen as a creep. Though pushy, arrogant heroes still exist in romances, they’re been taken down a substantial peg. Even in the most old-fashioned stories now being published, heroes show more physical respect for the heroines, and it’s a good thing, too.
This had to happen, because the inclusion of sexual details drastically altered the dynamics of romances. Previously, the men held all the power because the heroines were all virgins who knew nothing and were always caught off guard and shaken by the force of their own sexual response. Heroines did not know or understand their own sexuality, and thus they had no hope of controlling it. They became victims of it instead. So their only option in old romances was to withhold sex. If forced into sex anyway, they then withheld affection. Eventually, the men capitulated. This was negative power only, a double-edged sword of deprivation. By contrast, today’s romances rely on an elaborate expression of the consciousness that both the hero and the heroine have of their sexuality. The heroine has full knowledge of her body, and is able to participate fully in sexual behavior and to control herself and her suitor if she wants to. The result is fairly equal roles for both hero and heroine, though the hero usually remains the aggressor.
The old-style romance hero got away with casual cruelties, and often he succeeded in breaking the heroine down. But she broke him down, too. In our culture, this conflict is less and less popular because we don’t need it. We don’t need to see situations in which the passive-aggressive woman wins the conflict with an overbearing man. We don’t need to see situations in which the heroine triumphs over a competing other woman because getting the guy is the only thing either woman can do to succeed in life. We don’t need to see situations in which a hard-done-by heroine gets revenge (however modestly denied) against every one who has sinned against her. As American women gain a more equal role in our culture, we simply don’t find this power dynamic as appealing as we used to.
Unfortunately, even though the mainstream of American women have moved on to more equal relationships and better economic prospects, there still are plenty of women in our culture who feel trapped and lacking power. For them, the story of a sweet young woman who manages to disarm the heart of a sophisticated man of the world through her sheer goodness is empowering. In a kind of negative manner, true. It seems to encourage them to accept bad situations in the belief that if they just keep smiling, sooner or later the mean boyfriend, cruel husband, or selfish kids will change. On the other hand, it also reminds these downtrodden women that happiness is their right and that it can be found in even the most intimidating and negative circumstances. As with many stories, readers will take the message they find most appealing to them at the moment.
Of course this negative power dynamic still resonates strongly in the rest of the world because the position of women is much worse elsewhere. So that’s why stories like “Trapped by the Billionaire” (I made that up) still sell. Because there still are women who want to experience what it is like to fight against unfair odds and win anyway. There are moments in most women’s lives when they feel downtrodden and trapped, no matter how egalitarian their relationships or personal situations seem to be. And sometimes, as un-trapped and un-helpless and un-dominated as I am, I enjoy reading these stories, too. Because no matter how unfair the battle is, the heroine always wins.
Monday, October 22, 2007
Bradley Interchangeable III
Recently I was given a link to a comic book site that was knocking an old DC romance comic, Girls’ Romances #132, from 1968. It had a story inside in which the shy heroine literally never speaks to the stranger hero, who also never speaks to her. Even though at one point they sit at the same table with each other! Then, when all hope is lost, and she thinks she’ll never see him again, her family introduces him to her. And love is in the cards at last.
This is a version of the longing from afar that is a typical experience of adolescence. But without any personality to the characters, it can seem quite silly. There was a good deal of caustic commentary on the web site about this story. I tend to come down hard on these Internet pans, because I think old romance comics are just too easy a target. But I had to admit that “Funny Books: Dubious Moments in Comic History” had its hilarious moments. Especially when the writer referred to the unnamed romantic object of the heroine’s desire as “Bradley Interchangeable III.” Because to tell the truth, that’s exactly what that ilk of romance hero was. A guy who was vaguely upper middle class, who dressed like the squares did, and who had no personality. So little personality that when he is seated with an attractive girl his age, he says not one word to her. Lame. So old-fashioned, too.
Or is it? Don’t we see exactly this kind of behavior today, when we read the “Desperately Seeking” personal ads, in which people sigh over individuals they have seen just once on a subway train, or in a traffic jam, or walking down the street? Or with whom they exchanged 30 seconds of idle chatter over their dogs in a park? Or in passing at a bar? And now they’ve decided this is their one true love and they are desperate to find them again? The instant attraction that is not followed up at the moment, but is regretted later, is not merely fiction. An exchange of glances alone is enough to make today’s singles pay to place an ad in a newspaper (or online) on the very slim hope that the object of their inarticulate adoration will respond. So maybe this old comic book story is not quite as lame as the we’d like to think.
But back to the comics and the past. Dressing like a square. Technically, “square” is an earlier term, applied during the beatnik period and after it in the 1950s. It’s used in “West Side Story,” for instance, which debuted as a musical in 1957. But how else to describe the chasm between dressing like a hippie and an adult in the late 1960s? Oh, that’s right, they were called “straights.” But later on, that term came to refer mostly to sexual orientation.
There was a huge generation gap between young people and older people in the late 1960s. It had many components, most of them political. And it was symbolized by clothing and hair styles. Some young people advertised that they were going along with the establishment program by dressing like younger versions of adults. Thus, Nancy Sinatra in her go-go boots and Jane Fonda in her sex object movies. And other young people showed in their dress that they weren’t: Thus the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper look, and the scruffy one after it, and college students wearing old fur coats from thrift stores and straggly long hair and beards. The Mamas and the Papas and other American musicians at the time sported bizarre headgear or costumes, but ordinary young people wore items just as outlandish and mismatched, a way of saying that they were not part of the establishment.
Romance comics were all drawn by the older generation, though. These guys might have started off as kids in the comics business in the 1950s, but by the 1960s, they were married men with mortgages who lived in the suburbs. They were members of the establishment. So they drew the romantic heartthrobs in romance comics to look like the young men they wanted their own daughters to date: Short-haired, suit-and-tie types whose financial future was assured and who wouldn’t be getting arrested during anti-Vietnam War protests. Never mind that just about any young man wearing a suit at that point was probably a suave con artist type you should never trust with your daughter.
Since there was a distinct political divide between young people, and style indicated politics, this meant that romance comics, all featuring versions of Bradley Interchangeable III, were only likely to please part of their potential female audience. Even when comic book stories tried to include the scruffy youth of the day, they tended to polish people up and match their clothes, and make them look far too fashionable. Again, not the visual style that would attract the counterculture part of the potential romance audience. And in most cases, those hippie types were portrayed as the loser villains, not the romantic heroes. Most romance comics in their last years of publication still featured boys or men who looked like the kinds of men Annette Funicello might have dated in a beach movie 10 years before. As popular as those movies were in the early 1960s, they were always inane. By the late 1960s the world had moved on, and by the early 1970s, when romance comics were in their death throes, everything was different.
(Romance novels didn’t have quite the same problem because a reader could ignore the cover and the initial character description and imagine that the hero looked like whatever she wanted. Still, lots of change was happening in the romantic novel field. But that’s another story for another day.)
Back to the beach. The clean cut, sexually-on-the-make, wink-wink hero in beach movies was a boring hero. The same type, sexually restrained by the censorship of the Comics Code Authority and by the bland personality conventions that still held in romance comics, was a boring comic book lover. So it was a double whammy: The guys were boring to look at, and their range of personality was slender. And that’s another reason why romance comics eventually just tanked. They were offering less and less, to a smaller percentage of the romance audience.
Does MyRomanceStory.com do a better job of offering a range of romantic heroes? We think so. We do like them rich or at least financially comfortable, and in a prior post I’ve explained why. But we’ve featured men who dedicated their lives to saving endangered species (Going Batty), men who risked their lives to help people in Third World countries (Coming Home), men working undercover to rescue a family member (Summer Love), geeky science guys who can’t get dates (Love Potion), men who have made mistakes in the past and now want to make up for them (Theater of Fright), and many more. We try to find interesting romantic situations between interesting people in interesting locales. We don’t just have one personality type for our heroes. (Nor for our heroines.)
I wonder if 40 years from now, someone will be holding one of our graphic romance novellas to scorn as they now laugh at 40-year-old romance comic books? But on what basis? Will people still be putting down romance just because it is romance? Or will male-female relationships change so much that even what we create today as honestly as possible will seem totally stilted and contrived? I don’t have a crystal ball. But it’s nice to think that romance will get better, isn’t it?
Of course, by then we might have live holographic “Desperately Seeking” ads spamming our homes. Ack!
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Romance or Duty?
What on earth does romance have to do with opera? A lot more than you might think. I’m about to go see a favorite Verdi opera, “La Forza del Destino.” Why is it a favorite? Because somewhere between pity and terror, a grand exercise of all the emotions takes place, with an emphasis on the struggle between personal happiness and family duty. And that is a key theme of romance.
Of course, operas no longer feel like romances because so often all the principal characters die. Here’s the plot of Forza: The secret boyfriend accidentally kills his beloved’s dad, setting off a long and miserable chain of events during which the vengeful son of the dead man kills his sister and causes the boyfriend to kill himself, but not before the boyfriend manages to get in a lethal thrust and kill the brother. Got that?
Why does this all happen? Because the boyfriend is not of pure enough blood to please the girl’s family. No matter that he is an Incan prince (they made that one up), the brother calls him various nasty names. And even though they become good friends in war and swear eternal brotherhood while not recognizing each other (you don’t want to know), the brother still tries to kill the boyfriend to avenge the family honor. And the brother also kills his sister for polluting their family’s honor.
This plot might be considered curiously antique, except that versions of such honor killings are still happening in some of the more backward parts of the globe. In societies in which individual personalities are ignored and rigid codes are a way of life, nothing is as important as family identity, especially bloodlines. So any threat to the family honor via a possible pollution of bloodlines is violently rejected. The pitiful songs in Forza, in which the sister begs for peace, or the boyfriend begs for mercy and calls his enemy his brother, thus still ring true.
But it’s not just the honor killings that still resonate. It’s the issue of loyalties. Not so long ago, a French movie director made a blatant reference to Forza that was the key to the entire two part movie, “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Spring.” In “Jean de Florette,” a French village coldheartedly treats newcomers from the city like dirt and some villagers actively collude to starve them out. It opens with music from the Forza scene in which the suitor begs for mercy as brother to brother, “O, fratel, pieta, pieta.” And since the answer in the opera is a sword thrust to his heart, we know from the first moments of this movie that Things Are Not Going to End Well. The villagers view the newcomers as outsiders because blood ties are more important in their society than individual personality. Fairness and decency are not extended to strangers. And the irony is that the supposed strangers actually are related to the very villager who actively causes their downfall, as the second movie, “Manon of the Spring,” reveals. But don’t worry. Manon gets her revenge.
In modern romances, these situations still happen, but usually without the revenge component. Instead, we have the happily ever after ending. The heroine who tries to start a medical practice in a small town that is against her gender or youth eventually wins the people over. The heroine who has been raised in an immigrant family and is being pressured to marry only within that same ethnic group finally secures the support of an influential family member in her choice to marry as she pleases. The heroine who has a dream of living a different life, of bettering herself, gets encouraged to follow that dream. The heroine of ordinary blood marries the handsome prince. The heroine who is weighed down by supporting orphaned siblings finally cuts the apron strings. The heroine who is the constant victim of a selfish parent escapes the toxic situation. And so on.
The element that ties these romance themes to operas is the dramatic dilemma that causes all the passionate outpourings. Operas frequently illustrate struggles to attain personal happiness by being more than a cipher, more than a name and a position in life, and yet to do one’s duty. And operas show the tides that run against such individualism, that doom one good man to take the life of another, and that doom a romance to frustration and tragedy. Sometimes, as in “La Forza del Destino,” these forces are described as fate or destiny. It’s powerful stuff, just as romances are.
But wait, you say. Romances aren’t like operas. Romances end happily. Not so. Throughout history, the great love stories have usually been tragedies. Tristan and Isolde, a story that resonated for hundreds of years, is about forbidden love versus family loyalty. Lancelot and Guinevere is much the same. Heloise and Abelard is an even more blatant honor situation and it really happened. But most modern romances as fiction end happily because in our society we value the individual over the family or social codes, and we have the wealth of opportunity that allows personal feelings to be followed.
Of course I have to cite the recent Diana-Charles-Camilla British royal scenario as a spectacular and amazing piece of old-fashioned, classic romantic tragedy based on a clash between family honor and individual feelings. Yet as strange as it seems, in a few decades, popular sentiment will probably swing to this being a romance with a happy ending. Remember that in Gothic romances, the beautiful but evil/wimpy first wife often gets killed so the plain-looking but sincere governess gets to be the second wife. As memories fade and new generations look at this royal soap opera, and as the survivors get to rewrite history as the winners always do, the judgment of history may be different from what we think it is right now. Diana evil or wimpy? Camilla a heroine? It could happen. Regardless, this romantic story is operatic to the core.
To me, the passionate outpourings of operatic characters, their attempts to connect with each other, are absolutely transporting. I find the passionate outpourings of romance heroines and heroes in novels to be similar; each takes me to the same emotional place. Although the outcomes often may be different, the central dilemma in many romances and operas is the same: How to attain personal happiness yet balance it with larger issues of honor and duty. We’re just so lucky today to have cause to believe that every romance can have a happy ending.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Bad Language in Romances
Recently there has been some discussion (okay, argument) in the romance world about using bad language of any sort in romances. Some romance readers and writers object to heroes or heroines using bad words under any circumstances. Of course there are several varieties of words that are included as objectionable: References to god, scatological words that refer to bodily functions or parts, sexually suggestive words that refer to behavior, and racial slurs. That’s a big list and I still might have forgotten something. Oh, chauvinism. There’s probably more.
Right off the bat, romances eliminate the scatology and the racial slurs; we just don’t have characters who do that. We don’t do homophobia, either. Our characters either live in a completely hetero world or the sexual orientations of their friends, relatives, or acquaintances are not a cause for discussion. Romances also do pretty well at avoiding national chauvinism; if a romance takes place in a country notorious for its lousy government or even its slow postal system, no disdainful reference is made to that. Even desperate romantic adventures happening in drug-infested countries, where the governments often are corrupt, usually are placed in mythical countries instead of named real ones. Or if in a real country, the bad guys are specifically described as outlaws. Romance writers are so nice. We don’t want to offend anybody. And we do try to look on the bright side.
That includes avoiding using sexual terms that are degrading, negative, or nasty, including the “F” word, of course. In a romance, it’s making love, not “effing.” Descriptions of lovemaking may be colorful, but always, romance writers strive to paint a romantic picture, not a vulgar one. Perhaps this avoidance of the degrading, the nasty, and the vile is what turns a story romantic. Certainly there is a very definite line of demarcation between the language used in romances and what is common or acceptable in our culture today.
In our culture we’re now used to many various instances of bad language in public. We’re also used to sexually suggestive titles for everything, and suggestive advertising linking sex to products that clearly have nothing to do with sex. So it may come as a surprise to hear that in olden days, a lot of people didn’t talk this way. I am told there was a day and age (I think it was the Victorian age, and my goodness, what a long time ago that was!) when people did not ordinarily try to include sexual innuendoes and references in their daily chat and their written work. Somehow, I think that part was a lie; I think people just love to talk about sex, no matter how obliquely. But it is true that for a limited number of people at any time there have been polite standards of language that did not include swear words and all manner of other bad language, and those people adhered to them fairly scrupulously. A hundred years ago, acceptable public language for mixed company (what we now call a “family audience”), used not to include words like “hell” and “damn.” I remember going to a play with my great-uncle when I was a teenager, and he was outraged at the dirty language: Yep, it was “hell” and “damn.” And that’s all. I already thought the language was very mild, despite having never heard worse in our household while growing up. In fact I barely ever heard those words, period. Grown-ups I knew did not use any swear words around women and children. Television did not use them. Radio did not use them. Movies did not use them either. This has all changed since I was a child. But we did have a high school teacher—briefly—who said those two bad words. We kids were totally titillated. Then we did our sanctimonious best to get him in trouble for saying them. In college it was different; all the teachers used the two bad words, and some others. The big revelation there was that the students, especially the prep-school girls, used really filthy language. Until then, because I had a sheltered upbringing, I had never known that a word for defecate (yes, the “S” word) could be declined like any regular verb. My big college accomplishment was to learn to swear like the rich girls!
The world has moved on, and I would be surprised if a young girl entering college today would be shocked by bad language she might hear around her. But in the romance world, we exact higher standards of behavior from our characters than we usually do in real life. This is fine for the romantic moments in a story. But what about other moments?
The big problem is that if the men do not say even one tiny bad word here or there, it is hard to cast them as believable alpha males in macho occupations. I know a very tolerant lady who says she had to beat up on her husband when he came home from the Navy; he was swearing a blue streak, as was typical of servicemen. And although she was willing to accept a certain amount of bad language in her home, the Navy level was way over the top. So, why do romances about Navy SEALS sanitize their probably rough language? Because, for one thing, nobody really wants to hear it in a romance. For another, these instances of bad language no longer have much meaning.
Imprecations, that is, curses, used to invoke the power of god, the devil, fate, or whatever against the person being cursed. The person cursed thus felt under attack by unseen forces. And for millenia people have believed in the power of cursing; think how many have accused enemies of the evil eye, or of hexing their family or their animals, or the like. The power of cursing was real in the past. Today, there are not many people in our culture who would worry if someone said, “I hope you get run over by a bus.” Yes, the hostility in the thought comes through. But the enemy has no power to make the bus run you over. (Unless this is happening on the weird TV show, “Lost.”) Cursing just doesn’t carry much weight for most of us anymore.
Similarly, profanity, taking god’s name in vain, has also lost its power. Not only is being damned to hell meaningless to many of us—plenty of people do not believe there is a hell or a god, for that matter—there is little aversion to using the name of god in a non-religious context. That’s what profanity really is. People may not like it. But we just don’t see instances of a god striking someone dead for mentioning her name irreverently.
But people do say bad words. So what is a romance writer to do? Well, one method is to say that the hero “cursed.” Not to write out the curses as actual dialogue. This can work very nicely because, just as we have learned to tolerate a lot of bad language, the meaning of the language itself has been lost. The hero who curses isn’t trying to make the villain’s cow stop producing milk. The hero is just trying to express his frustration and anger. It’s not likely that a man’s man, an alpha male, is going to use soft-edged terms from pop psych self-help books to describe his feelings: “When you try to kill me, that upsets me. We should discuss this problem in a neutral setting.” Alpha men don’t talk like that. A few viciously delivered curses cover the emotional territory much more believably. And yet, the reader and the heroine don’t really need to know the details of those words. Only that they were spoken. Sometimes, though, romance writers don’t want to pull back from active dialogue to deliver the curses as descriptions. It can stop the flow of the scene. And therein lies the creative problem. Should the actual words be used?
Comics have long since solved this dilemma quite beautifully, by using the symbols of the keyboard. When a comic character says “@#$%^&*!” it is understood that these are bad words. The effect is there, but not the specific detail that might be offensive. Usually, though, these symbols are used for humorous effect, not to be serious. Either way, at MyRomanceStory.com, since we use the graphic format we have that option. But we have chosen to take the high road and try to eschew all bad language. When our characters get emotional, though, they might say a word or two that some people today still don’t like to see.
Ideally behaved people do not say bad words, do not use coarse language, do not ever denigrate another person, and so on. But in romantic fiction as in real life, people are not ideal, although we certainly edge them a lot closer to ideal than in, say, gritty street fiction. So bad language is likely to be with us forever. The debate continues to rage about where and how to draw the line. Meanwhile, don’t be giving me the Internet version of the evil eye, a flamethrown response.
Thursday, October 04, 2007
People Like to Put Us Down
And I’m not just talkin’ about my generation. Every generation that reads romances gets the same put down from someone: “When are you going to read a real book?” “Why do you read those sex stories?” “You should read something important.” “Why don’t you read about real life?”
Uh, excuse me? Real life? What could be more real than feelings that develop between two people that are so overwhelming they are willing to forsake their families and even lose their lives for love?
It’s worth bringing up Romeo and Juliet, because they were famous lovers whose desperate feelings we find it easy to dismiss today merely because they were young teenagers. Yet in their time, they were of marriageable age. Throughout history, families have married off their children as it suited the family, not the individual, no matter how much personal misery ensued. Romeo and Juliet epitomize personal rebellion against centuries of social tradition. No wonder they ended up dead.
It has only been in the last century or so in the western world that both men and women have had the luxury of arranging their own lives and choosing their own mates. The difficulty of choice in an open field should not be underestimated, since we do not have thousands of years of social history to guide our freedom. Maybe divorce holds out hope that mistakes can be left behind. But most of us don’t want to make mistakes in the first place.
Given this situation, you could say that romances are a tool to help people figure out how to recognize the right mate. Even though romances are about an area of human feeling that has always existed, that has frequently been sung about, and that has inspired countless poems, plays, paintings, and myths. Because classical artistry is based on life situations in which the commanding interference of others is a key element in the romantic relationship. We still suffer interference from interested family members, but modern romance is pretty much up to just the two people who fall in love.
Yes, it is natural to fall in love, but it is not logical. Loving feelings simply are not rational. And every person falls in love a different way. When those irrational feelings and high emotions strike, how do we decide what to do? How do we distinguish between infatuation and love? Between sincerity and flattery? Between protectiveness and power plays? We need a road map. And because every person is unique, we need many variations on this road map. Hence, all manner of romances. It’s so simple when you think about it logically: We need romances!
Of course a romance about a lonely billionaire and a spunky sculptor isn’t an exact blueprint for a happy future. If it were, we’d have fewer unhappy billionaires and starving sculptors. But learning how to recognize the person with whom you could happily spend all your life is important. Learning how to negotiate conflicts with that person in an era in which you could just walk out the door and find someone else is also important. Romances present many varieties of scenarios in which the heroines learn more about themselves and about the men for whom they care. What to fight over and what to let go. How to fight fair, for that matter. It’s marriage counseling in advance, if you will.
Do romances present plans for saving the world? Actually, yes, sometimes they do. Sometimes there’s an environmental or political issue at stake, and often there is a serious moral situation, too. Romance heroines and heroes frequently are shown asking themselves what is right and what is wrong. Many romances also deliver an inspiring message of hope in a troubled world. The characters love and survive despite hideous odds against them.
Romances are rooted in the personal, and because they are, they have tremendous emotional impact. Which means that as teaching mechanisms, they are unmatched. I guess the spoonful of sugar theory comes into play here, too. For many of us, it is easier to confront difficult life choices when they are embodied by someone else and prettied up a bit, too. Romances fulfill a very useful function of drawing us in while at the same time engaging us in a safe manner.
So, when people try to put you down for reading romances, don’t let them. You don’t have to reply with a snarl or a sneer at their ignorance. But you don’t have to feel defensive, either. Romances are big in more than one way.
Monday, November 26, 2007
Jealousy and Truth
Friedrich Schiller was a German playwright of the 18th century who delighted in making up behavior by historical figures that simply never happened. And he did it so well that even today, other dramatists prefer his false version of events to the truth. And so does the audience, whether it be for a play, a movie, or as I recently saw, an opera.
Take, for instance, the dramatic meeting between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth Tudor, her cousin and Queen of England in the 16th century. Schiller wrote a scene in which they met privately and talked. But it never happened. The two women never met face-to-face even though Elizabeth had Mary as her prisoner under house arrest for 18 years.
Why write a scene about historical figures that never happened? Because Mary Queen of Scots was a tragic beauty, whose story still fascinates centuries after her life ended. Because Elizabeth Tudor was an amazing monarch, a woman who managed not to be ruled by men despite the times in which she lived. Because we want to get close to the essence of these far-off figures. And because it’s dramatic to see a person hurl her true thoughts directly at the head of another person who is standing before her. Much more dramatic than culling the random, carefully written words of contemporary diarists and observers and then drawing a painstakingly hedged and historically accurate conclusion about Mary Queen of Scots’ opinion of her cousin.
This entirely made-up scene became pivotal in Donizetti’s opera, “Maria Stuarda,” in which the two queens jealously attack each other, supposedly over the Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s rumored lover. In the opera (not in real life), Leicester is more personally interested in Mary than in Elizabeth, and that makes Elizabeth jealous. And sparks the dramatic confrontation scene.
But Leicester is a convenient stand-in for a complex group of jealousies: Elizabeth was famously personally vain. But Mary was famously beautiful. Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, had been convicted of adultery (probably falsely) and beheaded. Elizabeth lived in the shadow of her mother’s harlot status her whole life. And Elizabeth herself had been declared a bastard at age three, disinherited, and treated badly. She very nearly lost her head under her sister’s reign because she was the sort of threat to her throne that Mary Queen of Scots later became to her own. Meanwhile, Mary’s mother was of good repute, and a staunch fighter for her crown. And Mary herself was raised in the luxury of the French court, a petted future queen of France who casually claimed Elizabeth’s throne as the only legitimate heir and Roman Catholic claimant. But Elizabeth later successfully ruled her country, whereas Mary had been unable to, and had in fact fled it after her nobles ousted her from power.
Jealousy is an emotion common to most people, and thus it’s easy to grasp in a mere few seconds of theater. When Donizetti used jealousy over a man as the way to couch the rivalry between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor, he was perhaps cheapening the complexity of their conflict. But he was also making it fully human and pulling it back from the realm of religious differences and political games. And when I watched Mary lash out at Elizabeth and call her a harlot to her face, I had an epiphany. This is what Mary really believed about her cousin. And this is what Elizabeth knew everyone thought. It’s the heart of their conflict, the reason why Elizabeth had to execute Mary. The scene is theatrical genius.
At MyRomanceStory.com our writers are not writing operas or historical plays, but we try to do the same thing dramatically with our stories. We choose a few words between a hero and heroine to stand for many. We look for the essential conflict, and ignore trivial details. In real life, arguments between people often can continue for days and weeks, with flare-ups now and again, and lots of passive aggressive acting out. People just don’t say what they are feeling or thinking. But there isn’t space in a novella-length story for this kind of extended dance, for the pouting and sulking in which people so commonly indulge. Our heroes and heroines have to get to the meat of what is bothering them, and quickly. So in our stories, we show people confronting their issues head on. Just as Mary Queen of Scots confronts Elizabeth Tudor with her bastardy in Schiller’s play and in Donizetti’s opera.
Schiller’s imagined scenes and Donizetti’s imagined jealousy over a man work dramatically to tell a story with underlying truth. So do our pithy bits of dialogue and carefully selected confrontations. Every word moves the story along, reveals the nature of a conflict, or confronts it. (With the exception being, usually, lovemaking.) It’s not that our characters have little to say to each other. It’s that they have to say it as effectively and as dramatically as possible. Donizetti uses jealousy over a man to incite the insecurities of both queens. In our novellas, we try not to use the jealousy card, which has been overused in romances. We go straight to the truth card instead.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
Romance Cover Styles
I’ve just visited a fun web site, The Silver Age Marvel Comics Cover Index, that’s oriented to comic book fans, but it might be of interest to romance readers who want to know more about romance comics. It displays a limited selection of romance comic covers just when they were all about to be canceled back in the early 1960s, plus some from Marvel Comics’ glossy late 1960s-early 1970s versions, My Love and Our Love Story, that featured their most talented artists. Also, and this is always a hoot,there are covers of Millie the Model, Patsy Walker, and other “girl comics” that had nothing to do with serious romance and everything to do with comedy. Girl comics were, like Archie Comics, the sitcoms of the comic book world. Even today, you can pick up any Archie title and read the same ridiculous adventures of Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica and the rest of the gang. Every issue of Millie the Model was the same as every other issue, featuring rivalry between women, outlandish clothing drawn in a cartoony style, and silly plots. This is not the only place to view romance comics covers on the web, but it’s got a nice mix.
Admittedly, if you come at this kind of web site from being strictly a romance novel fan, it could be an acquired taste: You have to get past the hairstyles of yore and the outdated clothing. And the hats and gloves that women had mostly stopped wearing even when these comics were published. So the site might appear to be just a bit of historical trivia. But think of it. Newsstands were jammed with romance comics in the later 1940s and throughout the 1950s. The primary colors and simple artwork on the covers of these romance comics matched the lurid and bold artwork featured on paperback novels also sold at newsstands, novels by sensational writers like Mickey Spillane. Those usually featured a chesty, half-dressed blonde on the cover. Romance comics had the same blondes with red dresses on their covers, too. But usually more covered up.
Compare the situation today. Today, paperback novels meant for a male readership seldom have people on them. They often are dark colors shot through with eerie lighting effects. Sinister symbols abound, a favorite being a swastika. There are no blondes. Meanwhile, romance novels covers show glamor men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns. Or vignettes of bucolic middle-American life, with pregnant women and babies sitting on front porch swings. Or hero shots of sexy male ranchers, cops, or firefighters. Yet both kinds of books are sold in the same places. Newsstands hardly exist anymore, but now paperback novels are found in every drugstore and discount emporium. And even in bookstores. Originally, paperback books were considered too plebeian for bookstores, as were comics. Now these complementary popular fictions are still to be found together, and their covers don’t have to shout at pedestrians strolling past. Plus you can buy a latte on site and sit in a comfy chair to read them.
Monday, November 05, 2007
It’s not too late to sign up for NaNoWriMo. The National Novel Writing Month is happening November 1- November 30. Right now.
Having trouble writing your novel without a contract in hand? Get a structured deadline by joining NaNoWriMo (no fees, no personal info except a valid e-mail address required) and be in an online community of 90,000 hopeful novelists, all writing their hearts out in the month of November.
Feeling lonely just you and your computer? Join NaNoWriMo and discover fellow sufferers in nearby and far off places. Post about problems. Ask research questions. Vent about your unruly characters. There are forums for all, and you can start your own threads, too.
Or do you yearn to meet other writers without the expense of conferences and seminars? Join NaNoWriMo and become part of various write-ins being held all over the country.
The NaNoWriMo goal? Write 50,000 words in just one month. In 30 days. Well, now you’ve only got 25 days. That’s a mere 2,000 words a day. Or put another way, a mere eight pages of double-spaced typing. On some word processors, even fewer pages. You can do it.
Writing so much and so fast can lead to light-headedness, which might explain some of the trash talkin’ challenges issued by NaNoWriMo regions to rival regions. Maryland has a challenge going against a Texas group, for instance. To win the battle of words (literally, the word count), those writers have rounded up a posse of ambitious wordsmiths, some of whom are promising to write at least 75,000 words or even 150,000 this month! And the good news is that many of these writers are returning from the NaNoWriMo last year as winners. They wrote their 50,000 words then, and they expect to write another 50,000 words this very November. They know it can be done.
Kind of lights a fire under you procrastinators, doesn’t it?
What’s the reward? Obviously, you’ll have all that manuscript, those lovely 50,000 words to edit and rewrite come December. No rewriting now, please. Just steam ahead, unedited, unburdened by second thoughts. If a character takes a wrong turn in Chapter 2, don’t sweat it. Just keep writing. Maybe she’ll straighten up by Chapter 10. Or maybe she’ll develop into a whole new person. Lots of surprises await you if you’ll just sit down (or stand up, Hemingway did) and write!
Does the NaNoWriMo org offer a prize? Sure, a certificate. It can hang alongside your certificates for completing seminars, or showing up at camp, or whatever. If you need that kind of validation. They even have an ingenious method of verifying your word count. You scramble your manuscript and send it to be counted, not read. Their computer counts the words and then dumps the manuscript. And if you are completely untrusting, you can just post your daily totals. No hassles. The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to help you, the would-be writer, write up a storm. So go to it!
Friday, November 02, 2007
The Shape of Things to Come
At my dentist’s the other day, I wondered why he wasn’t playing the usual 1950s rock and roll he likes. He said indignantly, “There’s no 1950s music left!” Broadcast radio today is very straight-jacketed and owned by very few companies. Somewhere, some executive issued a memo, and now it’s nearly impossible to find a station that plays anything older than the late 1970s mixed with newer “oldies.” Ever the fixer, I suggested subscription satellite radio, which has separate channels for various decades of music. But my dentist pointed out that they don’t carry news, and so then he wouldn’t find out about local traffic jams that might be keeping his next patient from arriving on time. Sure, he could tune to the news channel, but he doesn’t want to hear all news. So he’s stuck with regular radio and music from an era he dislikes: Disco.
This happens to romance readers, too. Readers who do not want to read romances with a lot of sex or bad words in them are pretty much stuck these days. They can pick from a slender selection of category romances from a few publishers. They can read inspirational romances, but the narrowly focused evangelical Christian kind of story doesn’t usually appeal to a reader who is Jewish, or Episcopalian, and so on. They can try YA (young adult) books, but these are often about teenagers who are in the throes of adolescence and not ready to settle on a lifelong mate.
The seeming solution is to read older romances. But then the reader is stuck in a time warp, with topical stories or themes that proceed along old-fashioned lines. This can be fun, but it’s also limited. I myself have enjoyed reading contemporary romances written many decades ago, in which heroines lost their fortunes because of World War I, or the Depression. But sadness over not being able to wear silk underwear, speed around in a roadster, and dine at the Ritz seems more and more alien. These are historical romances already. It’s not that these antique romances did not have any sensual component or real romantic or social issues. They did. The dreadful choice of being rich or being a shopgirl still resonates in our modern culture, only today it is the choice between launching a career and being forced to work at Wal-Mart. The emotionally embroidered romances of Ethel M. Dell and her ilk in the 1920s were pretty frank sexually, without being detailed. The heroine in E. M. Hull’s groundbreaking novel, The Sheik—the big romance of the 1920s era—gets abducted in the desert and her captor has his way with her. Yep. Forced sex. These stories eschewed specific sexual details and instead used hyperbolic emotionality. But the relationships were resolved along conventional lines of the day. She marries her Sheik, who turns out to be—just like Tarzan—a long-lost British aristocrat. Very conventional and true to the prejudices of its day. Back then, even a real-life adventurous person like Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree, Jr., the famous science fiction writer), after a youth spent on safaris in Africa, was expected to make her debut and just marry well and be done with it. It’s doubtful that romance readers looking for less sex and less bad language also want less opportunity for their heroines.
Later last century a more prudish streak occurred, and a goodnight kiss suddenly was all that ever happened between a hero and a heroine. Mary Stewart’s couples in the early 1950s, even the pair who were exes in Wildfire at Midnight, never shared more than a kiss. (Stewart’s heroines never seemed to be doing much, either. They were sometimes teachers on vacation. Occasionally and most memorably in Nine Coaches Waiting, a governess. But mostly, they appeared to live off inherited money.) During this era, heroes and heroines seemed farther apart than ever, especially as so many supposed romances tended to be more about spies and mysteries than about love. And if they did focus on romance exclusively, the heroes were drawn as domineering pigs. The writing style typical for this kind of story was laconic, making a few words stand for many, and forcing the reader to fill in the gaps. This kind of style still works quite well in a murder mystery or a tale of suspense. But it is unlikely to satisfy a reader who doesn’t want a lot of cursing and sexual detail but who still wants a full-blown romance.
What famously happened to romances circa 1977 (and thus, yet another major change in direction in just one century of romances) is that they started to confront the very issues that they raised. Characters no longer spent whole books wondering about each other’s feelings; instead, they talked, argued, and generally expressed themselves. And because people can land themselves in plenty of trouble just by opening their mouths, the stories still had lots of excitement to offer even though conversation often was what moved the plot. This verbal effusion was matched by a sensuous explosion. Where before, a few words were sufficient to describe a hero as attractive, now the stories spent vast amounts of space on small details and on reiterating the erotic effect of one character’s physical impact on another. Thus, the romance gained a level of description it simply didn’t have before except in symbolism. (Ethel M. Dell had lushly emotional descriptions but her physical details were few and discreet.) A third change was thematic. No longer did romance plots generally feature emotionally distant, domineering men whose main goal appeared to be the subjugation by humiliation or violence of a basically helpless (and often naive) heroine.
Stories in which the hero and heroine were mostly antagonistic towards each other from across a wide gender gulf —whether they were equals or it was a David and Goliath situation—stopped being the mainstay of romance. In addition to confronting on life issues, heroes and heroines also resolved sexual issues by experiencing a happy sex life. Whatever the plot contortions, they ended up plausibly ready to live happily ever. But as a necessary part of finding this fundamental honesty to the relationship, the door to the bedroom was opened.
How or why to shut it? When the details of the sex are not crucial to the development of the story, of course. This is something that each author decides for herself. As younger generations of women launch writing careers, the sexual frankness they’ve always known in our culture might influence them to include details with a different purpose than was perceived by a prior generation of writers. Kind of like including the details of a fabulous dinner out. And maybe no more important than that dinner. Conversely, it could be a good reason for skipping the details. Possibly a younger generation of women is so well aware of their sexuality that they seldom encounter any sexual issues. Thus, no need to open the bedroom door at all. This is seen already in chick lit stories. Their heroines have sex, but it is mostly recreational sex and few details are given.
Those are two versions of one possibility, that sex will or can decline as a significant issue in a romantic relationship. There are so many other areas in a relationship to cause conflicts; one only has to read an advice column to realize that the range of potential problems is incredibly broad. I don’t think sex ought to be assumed to be automatically wonderful (or routine) and become taboo again, though. For most people, it is a very important issue.
As for the language problem, I’ve discussed that in another blog. While I, too, wince away from coarse language, the reality is that vulgar language usually moves its way up to respectability over time. Some basic words are still as nasty as ever, but plenty more are completely accepted now, though even a few years ago they were shocking. The older a person is, though, the more shocking it seems. I don’t want to minimize how unpleasant this is. But it is doubtful that people who think nothing of saying these words will feel compelled not to write them.
Do I have an answer for romance readers seeking stories with less sex and fewer bad words? Or for my dentist who is longing for 1950s rock and roll songs on the radio? It’s iffy. If romance writers themselves do not want to write lots of sex and bad words, then they might write different romances. And if their editors were daring enough to publish those romances, and readers bought them in significant numbers, then the direction of romances being published might turn again. My dentist is out of luck, though. The music of the 1950s is being phased out of corporate radio. And disco, hated and reviled disco, is back.
Monday, December 31, 2007
At this time of the year, most of us have just given presents, written cards, or e-mailed all our friends and our relatives with the season’s greetings. Sometimes the lists have to be pared. We have fallen out of contact with someone. Or their lives and ours have diverged and we find we have nothing much to say to each other. Sometimes we wish the list could be pared, as the same negatives may hold for family members, but we still struggle to keep up the link for the sake of family unity or peace. And then of course there are all the business gifts and cards that are given to be polite or to promote our work relationships. These fall off naturally as we move from one situation to another.
But probably the saddest removal from a holiday list occurs because the person has died. This happened to me when I was just out of college, and a dear friend crashed his little car fatally in a snow storm. (He’s the reason I have driven the car equivalent of a truck ever since.) Just this year I had to remove the name of an elderly cousin, the last remainder of a connection to a part of the country that our family now no longer occupies. And I was looking through some old folders and found correspondence from a writer who has since passed away, and from another who surely has as well. Shredding their letters gave me pause. I didn’t want to erase these traces of their presence on this earth.
One letter in particular seemed full of wisdom and intelligence. This lady had a writing track record and had considered writing romances, but had concluded that it wasn’t for everyone. She also felt that much of the critiquing that takes place within Romance Writers of America chapters was useless. Many writing groups have these critiquing subgroups. They exist for the simple reason that editors at publishing houses do not have the time to give would-be authors detailed feedback about their writing. The problem is that the opinion of another author is not necessarily the opinion of an editor or, more importantly, of a reader.
I was reminded of the difference between a reader’s point of view and an editor’s when I looked at the cover of an old sweet romance from a big name romance publisher. It was a pretty cover, which is why I tore it off and kept it when I threw the book itself in the paper recycling bin. (If you’re shuddering at this action, you may not realize that unsold mass market paperback books are routinely cover stripped and tossed out. And most bookstores do not bother to recycle the paper.) Yes, the cover was charming. But the story was very badly written. It was a typical kind of story and I enjoyed reading it even so. Yet anytime I started to dip into the book, the extremely poor use of language was very jarring. I ended up getting rid of the book on that basis. But most readers would do as I initially did, and note the awkward, stilted language subliminally, but keep reading for the plot and the characters. Most readers of genre material are reading for plot and characters (and locale), not for the beauty or originality of the language. And that’s the reason that the opinion of another writer on one’s writing is not worth much, because most readers are not writers.
This letter from a dead lady about the value of romance writing critiquing definitely struck a chord with me. Here was someone whose intelligence and taste fairly leapt from the page. We had been casual acquaintances at best, and I had no reason to keep her letter any longer. But I was impressed by it, and also moved by the inevitability of change.
Most of the time, I am an enthusiastic de-clutterer. Ever since I discovered that one can remove reminders of past pain from one’s life by removing anything associated with that time, I have been gung ho about purging possessions. Oh, don’t worry. My house isn’t empty. But I don’t own any crutches or canes from leg injuries, for instance. Bad enough that I had the injury; no need to keep a souvenir around. There aren’t closets full of old clothes, either, although there are a few representative tokens. (Shoulder pads, anyone?) This year I have been purging old paper files. It’s a wonderfully freeing experience. I even figured out what to do with old greetings cards that were so pretty that I had been reluctant to chuck them (scan them, and toss them out anyway). And now I am working through the correspondence, just at the time of year when old acquaintances are remembered and toasted.
So, here’s to those ladies of romance who have passed to the next level, whatever it is. May their words be remembered even if the physical evidence must vanish. I hope your writing made you as happy as reading it made me.
Monday, December 24, 2007
Finished your Christmas preparations? Turns out you can thank the Victorians for Christmas Day becoming a big deal as a family celebration. Prior to their time, there wasn’t the major compulsive present exchanging and family feasting in our country on that day. The Victorians are about as well known for excess as they are for sexual repression, so I guess it makes sense. It just seems odd that we have them to thank for this nearly intolerable pressure to buy, buy, buy. And eat, eat, eat.
And here’s a surprising reaction to A Christmas Carol, that Dickens favorite that is supposed to remind us that you can’t take it with you, and you might as well be generous with your money now, and all men are brothers. I read an opinion piece recently that maintained that Bob Cratchit was a poor money manager since he spent everything on family entertaining! (I think Scrooge was talking.)
Have you noticed the debt service and diet industries revving up for the January money and weight miseries? They are now an established part of the Christmas cycle. First, we are exhorted to spend and eat, then we are exhorted to stop spending and stop eating. This situation is known as satori, when two opposing concepts try to meet in the middle. It either drives you mad, or lifts you to a higher plane of spiritual existence.
I doubt if I have reached a higher plane, since I still love to cook up a storm at the holidays. Specifically to bake. Today I made nine dozen oatmeal raisin cookies and a mince pie. And tomorrow—yes, I know it’s madness—I am planning on making five dozen chocolate chip cookies. It all started with a mistake in adding an ingredient, and snowballed from there. Now I have to find people to eat the excess baked goods. Hopefully, people who will not feel they must then repay me by giving me fourteen dozen cookies and a pie in return.
Romances seldom dwell on these moments of holiday mania. No, in romances, the heroine makes the correct quantity of twelve kinds of cookies, puts them lovingly in hand-decorated baskets, and then personally delivers them to lonely elderly folks. (Presumably, to elderly folks who don’t have diabetes or high blood pressure.) Romance heroines also don’t go shopping at 3AM the night after Thanksgiving to score deep discounts on electronics for vast lists of relatives and friends. And they don’t faint in January when they start getting all the credit card bills, the way real-life people do. Romance heroines also don’t generally gain fifteen pounds in the six weeks of partying from Thanksgiving through New Years, either. That’s why romance is fantasy.
Yet I have noticed that romances taking place during the holidays dwell lovingly on all the decorating, present-wrapping, cooking, baking, and other family rituals. And since such rituals are highly idiosyncratic, different in every family, they are quite entertaining to read about. Shopping is mentioned, but it is not usually described at length. Nor is the issue of overspending on gifts mentioned in romances. But mistletoe and holly, Christmas trees, and the angels on the top get lots of play. Romances can be positively Victorian in their gush over holiday traditions. Which actually makes sense considering that romances are sometimes castigated as affirming old-fashioned values. But in romances, the excess is all tied in to feelings. In real life, the excess is sometimes about putting in too much sugar. That’s how my four dozen cookies turned into fourteen.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Romance as Suffering
Here’s something I bet you never realized. Romances with happy ever after endings are a very modern concept. There has been a lot of discussion in romance land lately about how boring and stultifying it is to always have a happy ever after ending. But romances didn’t always end happily and they didn’t always get to a happy ending without a lot of pain and suffering along the way. Yes, one of my favorite types of romance, the tearjerker, is completely out of fashion these days, and it’s kind of strange when you think about it.
Most of the classic romances in history have been tragedies. They didn’t end well. Marc Anthony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde, Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot—well, you can understand why that one ended badly. But you get my drift. What we think of as classic romance was unhappy romance. And romance stayed unhappy. Yes, it is true that Jane Eyre did marry her Rochester. But Clarissa was undone by Lovelace and died. Poor Lucia di Lammermoor went mad and killed her bridegroom on the wedding night. And died. The lovers in “Swan Lake” reunited only in death. And Rhett Butler walked out on Scarlett O’Hara (which was getting off lightly, compared to these other classic unhappy endings).
But those of us who have been reading romances written in the past few decades are not used to anything but a happy ever after ending. Oh, we’ll accept them in classic literature, and even in classic films. There’s a wonderful article by Marlee MacLeod on GreenCine.com describing the history of the three-hanky motion picture, or weepie. Also known as a tearjerker or soap or sudser. Movies have paralleled novels in telling about some very unhappy love affairs.
[[SPOILER ALERT. I’m about to give away some endings.]]
Now Voyager, published in 1941 and written by Olive Higgins Prouty, who also wrote the famous tearjerker Stella Dallas, was made into a Bette Davis movie, so it is still fairly well known. An ugly duckling from a wealthy family finally manages to shed her awkward social image. She falls into love with an unhappily married man. At this stretch of time, I don’t remember all the details, but I think that he was married to an invalid, the kind of woman that only a cad would try to divorce. And back then, divorce was not easy to obtain and still carried negative social consequences. So at the end, the two frustrated lovers agree to keep it platonic, and they light their cigarettes on one match. And that’s it. That’s as close as they come to a sexual expression of their love or to being together in the future. That’s their big (un)happy ending.
The Age of Innocence, published in 1920, written by Edith Wharton, was recently made into a movie by Martin Scorsese. It told how a man was so constrained by his upper crust social sphere that he dared not consort with the interesting married woman he came to love, and he even urged her not to get divorced from her brute of a husband because it would be scandalous. So he lived a lie his whole life, married the wrong woman, and when he was a widower, still refused to reunite with the woman he loved. Because he sacrificed love on the altar of social smallmindedness. It certainly wasn’t a happy ending.
The Prisoner of Zenda, published in 1894, and a number one bestseller in its day full of rousing action, ends unhappily. The hero saves the day, saves the king, and falls in love with the princess. But the princess, although openly admitting she loves him, chooses duty over love. And so the hero returns to England and his love marries the king, and all they ever exchange is a once-a-year love token. This should be a downer, and it is. But both the hero and heroine behave so nobly that their lost love is seen as a fine sort of suffering.
Various more obscure writers of the 20th century, such as Ruby M. Ayres, Kathleen Norris, Temple Bailey, Faith Baldwin, and Netta Muskett told weepy stories of loves that did not go well. The chief element in these romances was suffering. In many of them, the heroine had a strong sense of being alone with her miserable feelings. The other aspects of her life were as dross because she couldn’t be with the one she loved. She just suffered and suffered and suffered. In some of these stories, circumstances kept the characters from confiding their feelings. In others, they talked about them endlessly, but obstacle after obstacle (usually family duty or social consequences) got in the way of being together. If they did have a fleeting period of happiness, it was set up in such a way that everyone knows it can’t last. Such as in Three Weeks, by Elinor Glyn. I can remember one story that went on and on, with the heroine suffering every step of the way and in every conceivable manner. It was great. (Well, actually, I remember the reactions I had; the details and even the name of the story escape me now.)
Romances today just don’t go in for such extended suffering. Women still have enormous responsibilities, but the responsibilities don’t force romance heroines to give up on love. It isn’t necessary for a heroine to reject the man she loves to take care of her aging mother, or her young siblings, for instance. Societal roles are much more fluid today, too. Men don’t stand on their pride and refuse to marry women who have more money than they do. (Actually, I’m not sure this was ever true. But in fiction, it used to be a terrible barrier.) Women’s social lives are not determined by their reputations in the same way they used to be. Single mothers abound, and the worrisome issue of having been seen with the wrong person and thus condemned to social shunning just isn’t an issue for most people in our society. The suffering part of romance today is cut short. Instead, the stories focus on how the main characters solve their conflicts. And the conflicts are usually as much interpersonal and internal as they are external and forced on them by others. Thus, a modern Ruritanian romance would have action and adventure and conflicts between the hero and heroine, and yes, concern that maybe the princess can’t marry the commoner. But by the end, something gives, and it all works out.
It’s probably a good thing that modern romances are so optimistic. But wait a minute. People have been complaining about happy ever after endings. And the current rage is the paranormal romance, in which at least one main character, or both, are dead. Or rather, undead. Or else they are werewolves, condemned to a life of being hunted and misunderstood, and…hmm. Maybe the suffering romance is still with us after all.
Sunday, December 09, 2007
Possibly the Worst Cute Meet Ever
I just remembered a manuscript that I read many years ago, and I can’t resist sharing. But so as not to sully my prior blog entry, I’m making this a separate one.
Yes, I once read what possibly was the worst cute meet for a hero and heroine EVER. He was being treated at a VD clinic. For those of you reading this in foreign countries, that means he had a sexually transmitted disease and had sought medical assistance at an establishment staffed by public health doctors. And the heroine happened to be part of the medical/social worker team.
There several very good reasons why this isn’t a good opening for a romance. I’ll bet you can guess at least one of them:
1) Introducing a hero who has had the bad luck or the lack of discrimination to have contracted a sexually transmitted disease does not make him appealing to a reader. In fact, it makes him repulsive and makes the reader question his morality. Most such diseases are accompanied by rank symptoms, too, which are off-putting. Plus, the idea of dangerous and disgusting results from having sex is anti-romantic.
2) A person seeking treatment at a public health clinic typically has no money. A romance hero ought to have his life together enough to be able to afford to visit his own doctor. Instead, imagine him sitting in the clinic with the hoi polloi for hours, just another number waiting to be called. A hero ought to be larger than life, not caught in the machine.
3) This cute meet is the opposite of cute. It might be considered realistic, which is not the preferred tone of a romance. I mean, come on. Who daydreams about meeting a man with gonorrhea? Nobody! Venereal diseases are generally considered to be dirty secrets or embarrassing plights. They are not the stuff of which romantic fantasy is made.
4) This opening gambit runs the risk of seeming funny to the reader, like a bad joke. A romance is not supposed to be a bad joke.
Cynical realism is a quality that romance writers and readers actively avoid. While I and most romance readers don’t want to see a lot more broken down car, fender bender, or other cliché cute meets, this one isn’t an acceptable substitute. We’ll take the stupid mixed-up hotel reservation ploy over a nasty sex-related disease anytime.
Sorry. I couldn’t help talking about this. Because even many years later, I am still wondering what on earth possessed that writer to think of such an obviously unromantic way to start a romance.
Saturday, December 08, 2007
The Cute Meet
The cute meet is a cliché of romances. It goes something like this: The heroine is having a bad day. Not only has she snagged her absolute last pair of pantyhose already, but she’s late for an important business meeting—probably a job interview for a job she desperately needs in order to support her orphaned nephew, her ill mom, or the like. As she’s walking along the sidewalk, a car splashes her all over. Her clothes are soaked. Ruined. She yells invective at the driver, an arrogant-looking man in a sportscar. A few minutes later, still dripping wet and looking like she was pulled backwards through a barn, the heroine doggedly arrives to have her interview. Of course, it’s with the very man who splashed her. And maddeningly, he doesn’t refer to their first meeting at all. But he does hire her, although she keeps having to prove she’s competent because she made such a bad first impression. The unfairness of it all!
Or here’s another version: The heroine is distracted, and she pulls out into traffic without looking carefully. She slams her beat up old Volkswagen into a luxury or a collectible antique car. Out comes the owner, hopping mad. She and he have words. A few minutes or days later, she meets her new boss: Same guy, and now he’s determined to get back at her for her lack of respect for the injury she did to his prized possession. An office duel ensues.
Or how about this scenario: The heroine is dragged to a loud party, either at a bar or at a stranger’s house, and out of nervousness, she drinks too much. As a result, when a stranger and she hit it off, she lets up on her usual stern morality and goes along with a seduction. For a while. Things are getting hot and heavy when she panics and stops them. She and the man have unpleasant words. Soon after, he turns out to be her new boss (is this beginning to sound familiar?) or the new owner of her ancestral home which her useless brother has gambled away while somehow also indenturing her as a servant to the new guy. The hero treats the heroine as if she’s a slut, and she is too proud to explain that she’s a good girl. But he secretly is wildly in love with her.
Then there’s the opening scene in which a heroine is driving alone in a storm, stupidly not having checked the weather report in advance because she has been too busy crying over some problem. It’s either blinding rain with scary lightning thrown in, or incredibly heavy snow with ice. Either way, she loses control of the car and ends up in a ditch. At this point, a handsome a) trucker, b) cowboy, c) mountain recluse, or d) sheriff comes to her rescue. Although she intends to hole up and avoid all men, she and he begin a relationship instead.
Ah, and then there’s always the vacation cabin story. The heroine has been loaned or has rented the use of a cottage, an unused family apartment, or the like. She arrives late at night and throws herself into the first bed she sees. In the middle of the night, she turns over and there’s a strange man in bed with her, or trying to get into the room. Screaming and carrying on ensue. The man claims he has an equal or better right to the place. They end up sharing close quarters because she is too impoverished or desperate to have an alternate option available.
What is the point of all these cute meets? Obviously, they start stories with a dramatic bang. Literally, if it’s a fender bender. The hero and heroine share a dramatic scene of open emotion, often angry, before they officially meet. Some titillating nudity may be involved. They say or do rash, impetuous things. They each see how the other person behaves, as just one human to another, shorn of the privileges of money and power. This opens a world of possibility to an otherwise buttoned-down character.
But there are many reasons not to start a romance with a cliché cute meet. For one, they are incredibly contrived, because they depend on stupidity, on coincidence, and on lack of awareness of one’s surroundings. For another, they often introduce main characters who should be admirable as unkind or unsympathetic. And for a third, how important is it to know how nasty a loved one can get with a total stranger? Not very, really. In a happy lifetime relationship, how one’s spouse reacts during an unusual situation such as a car crash is not important. What if the man always flies into a rage? Or the woman always bursts into tears? What difference does it make to day-to-day living? None.
Because cliché scenes such as the ones described above have been repeated ad nauseam, the cute meet has fallen out of favor in recent years. That doesn’t mean they don’t still happen. We have our fair share in our stories at MyRomanceStory.com. Yes, it’s always a struggle for a writer to find a plausible way to introduce the hero and heroine to each other. It’s even more of a struggle to come up with a reason for the two to live or work together and yet still have enough conflicts to sustain a story. But the contrived conflict of a cute meet just isn’t good enough anymore. A strained contrivance like getting into a bed not noticing someone else is in it is not good writing. Writers can do better than this, and readers now expect it of them.
I do like the cute meet in our “Gone Batty,” in which the heroine has herself delivered in a barrel to her boyfriend’s house—only she ends up popping out, scantily clothed, at the wrong house, in front of a complete stranger. It fits with the rest of the story, which is about a heroine who is actively trying to push out of her boring comfort zone. That’s a lot different from starting a story with a heroine steering her car into a snowy ditch. What kind of heroine steers her car into a ditch in a snowstorm? Every kind. And that’s why the cute meet has to be dragged from the realm of cliché into the realm of unique, character-driven behavior. And out of the ditch of mundane contrivance.
Saturday, December 01, 2007
Location, Location, Location
When I look for a romance to read, the author’s choice of locale matters to me. And to most readers. It isn’t enough to describe a romance hero as a haughty Spaniard. It’s important to describe Spain, to show the place that made this man this way. A story about a coolly remote Frenchman would not be the same without descriptions of his world, be it a fancy chateau and vineyards, or a major city such as Paris. And what about those wild and crazy Aussie men? To leave out the country that made them is to leave out a major part of understanding who these men are. The same applies to heroes from Texas or California. Not only are people from these states known to be idiosyncratic and colorful, so are the states themselves.
I once read a manuscript submission whose story took place in Alaska. But the characters never went outside. They hung around in coffee shops. For all the local color they provided, they might as well have been in any chain restaurant in some no-name city in some bland state. None of the majesty, beauty, isolation, or ruggedness of Alaska or the individuality of its inhabitants came through. What a lost opportunity!
The writer could have recovered from her error if she had described how isolated parts of Alaska become in winter, and how the moose wander in the streets, and how inhabitants congregate in warm indoor spots. And then the writer could have described what the landscape outside looked like during that season. And how the weather affected people’s moods. And what they wore to get from one warm indoor location to another. All of these elements would have given the story substantial visual and emotional heft. But alas, the writer did not use them.
People pick a story to read not just because of the characters and their situation but also to participate in the locale. Readers like to be armchair travelers. A story that happens in Paris, for instance, gives the reader the opportunity to enjoy or learn something about Paris without any of the trouble or expense of going there for real. Plus, if the characters are local inhabitants, not just visiting, their knowledge of the territory and its social ways brings the reader in close. And if the main character is a tourist who meets and interacts with a local beyond the ordinary level of a tourist, the story gains even more depth from its location.
There’s a difference between a story that occurs on the standard tourist route of a country, and one that explores something more personal. For instance, island cruises around Greece typically hit the same selection of islands. So if a story follows that exact itinerary, it runs the risk of being too obviously just the story of a standard tour of a country, and nothing more. On the other hand, if the reader has already been to that country and those places, the common tourist sights might seem pleasantly familiar. So the jury is out on whether going the extra step of seeking out-of-the-way venues within a locale is necessary.
Still, the use of location ought to show some creativity. I read another manuscript in which the characters were in Tahiti and they had a picnic. Nice. They were outside at least. But just a picnic? Couldn’t the author find something else to have them do, something special to Tahiti that they could not do back home anywhere in the US of A? The location ought to be used to its fullest.
In real estate, the humorous but true mantra is “location, location, location,” meaning that it is the most important element of a deal. In a romance, location isn’t quite that important. But how the writer treats location can make or break the reader’s enjoyment of the story. And ignoring or slighting it leaves a story flat and often unconvincing. It’s like seeing a play on a stage without any sets. The reader should not be expected to imagine Alaska, or Paris, or Tahiti. The writer should describe the location and make it an integral part of the story.