Issue #101 (September 1, 2000)

What's Comfortable?
A couple of weeks ago we posted the results of our recent poll for Favorite Comfort Read Authors. Nearly as interesting as the results were the questions that came to mind after analyzing them. What constitutes a comfort read? How important are interrelated stories? How does the first as favorites phenomenon fit in to what makes a book or author a comfort read?

There seem to be (at least) two groupings of readers when it comes to comfort reads. There are those like myself, to whom a comfort read is like comfort food - something easy to swallow, soothing, dependable and familiar. For others, like AAR pollster Shelly Dodge, a comfort read is one that provides her with, for want of a better phrase, a Calgon "take me away" moment. As long as that read has an HEA ending, it can be an altogether dark book or an utterly frothy one.

What seemed clear is that, for both groups of readers, dependability is crucial - is the book/author going to satisfy the reader, and, is it a book/author that can be read time and time again? I've been having a tough time with most of the new romances I've been reading. In order to get through them to fulfill review obligations I have elsewhere, I promised myself that for every new "blah" romance I read, I'll read a comfort read author in-between. Today it was an Elizabeth Lowell series title; over the weekend it was Leanne Banks.

I know this is as true for me as it is for reader Kim, who writes, "My definition of comfort reads are books that I've read over and over because they make me feel good. There's got to be a unique connection between the hero and heroine that makes them special - some sort of quality that endears them to each other as well as to the reader. Sometimes they are light and humorous, other times they are more cathartic." Susan agrees that the book has to be well-written enough for re-reading and must have likable characters. She adds that emotionally intense books can work for her, but not "dark and disturbing ones." Pat Gaffney didn't make her list because "To Have & To Hold still gives me the creeps whenever I think about it, even though Wild at Heart is the epitome of a comfort read."

AAR Reviewer Candy Tan finds that most of her comfort reads are either straight comedies or, conversely, very dark reads. When she's feeling down, she goes for a romantic comedy, but she has been known to reach for romances featuring "heroes who are almost irredeemable jerks, probably because they feature rather nice grovels - there's nothing better in fiction than an alpha-heel who realizes how badly he's treated the heroine."

Leave it to AAR Managing Editor Blythe Barnhill to even further dissect what makes a comfort read for her. She says:

"I think there are really two different kinds of comfort read - comfort reads, and comfort re-reads.

"For me, JAK is a great comfort read, both because I like the basic style of her books and because of the banter between the hero and heroine. I know that her later books in many ways seem like pale imitations of earlier favorites, but for me they are like McDonald's food. It's not the best, but you know what you are getting every time, and sometimes McDonald's is what you are hungry for.

"Comfort re-reads are another matter. I rarely have time to reread anything, but when I do it is usually an early favorite like Amanda Quick's Rendezvous or McNaught's Whitney, My Love. One of my favorites to reread is the Jude Deveraux story Just Curious from the A Gift of Love anthology (also found in the Simple Gifts anthology). It's a short sweet, nearly perfect fantasy. My other favorite comfort reread comes from childhood - the Anne of Green Gables books. I still know Gilbert's proposal by heart."

The discussion took an altogether fascinating turn when Barbara mentioned that so many of comfort read authors write in the Regency period and speculated about why that might be. Cheryl agreed and pointed out that many romance readers came to romance via the Jane Austen, Regency Romance, regency historical route. In other words, she, along with countless other readers experienced a "first as favorites" phenomenon in terms of sub-genres.

For readers such as myself, who didn't find our way to romance via the classical route, we fell in love with the first sub-genre we read. While we've talked in the past about loving the first book we've read by an author over and above subsequent books, this same phenomenon can extend beyond authors and into time periods, settings, and sub-genres. It's going to be fascinating to look at the on-going results of our Favorite Romances by Favorite Authors polling - for how many of you was your first Balogh or Garwood or McNaught or Heyer your favorite? Similarly, if the first romance you fell in love with was a medieval, do you have a preference for them over and above other settings?

I know that, for me, the first romances I read were historicals set in the regency period. A few I picked up after that were medievals, beginning with Judith McNaught's A Kingdom of Dreams. I am not surprised that, for the longest time, the majority of romances I chose to read were either regency-set historicals or medievals.

AAR Reviewer Jennifer Keirans subscribes to the lure of "first as favorites." Her biggest comfort reads aren't even romances, although they definitely have romantic elements. When she wants a romance comfort read, she turns to Sandra Brown's Loveswept romances, the first romances she encountered, because they give her a "cozy feeling." She adds, "The first historical romance I ever read was Uncommon Vows by Mary Jo Putney. This made me love MJP, and that's still one of my favorite books."

For AAR Reviewer Lori-Anne Cohen, two romances she goes back to time and time again are among the first two she ever read - Jude Deveraux's Knight in Shining Armor and Julie Garwood's The Bride. She "not only discovered these two authors, I truly discovered the romance genre through them. Those two books are like coming home to me." For Lori-Anne, a comfort read has to "be a book that affected me in some big way or one that when I read it, I know it will. It's familiar but at the same time manages to make me feel a certain way...depending on my mood."

One of the greatest things I discovered in reading romance was that many of the stories were related to one another. I discovered Julie Garwood with Castles, and read that quartet backwards. For readers who discovered Garwood with Castles, many find that to be their favorite Garwood. For others, who had read her before, Castles is not nearly as good as, say The Bride, or The Prize. And, for those of us who discovered her with Castles, we are frankly appalled that anyone could love For the Roses.

But enough about Garwood - the larger issue is that of related stories, either through family members or friends. How wonderful it is to read a terrific love story and be introduced to a character whose love story you can't wait to read next! I can't think of an author I've loved who doesn't do this successfully, although there are many authors who fail at this, often by having the original characters outshine those who "star" in the newer book, or by seeming to "cash in" on a successful series by continuing it when it should have ended already.

While many of my favorite authors have written interrelated books quite successfully, some of those same authors have failed. Catherine Coulter is a prime example. While her Magic trilogy worked through and through for me, most of her other trilogies seemed to peter out by the third book. Then there's Johanna Lindsey's beloved Malory series - the last two titles certainly proved disappointing. Nora Roberts has managed to give an extensive life to her MacGregor series, and, as J.D. Robb, to her In Death series, but, as is often the case with this author, she proves the exception to the rule. I mean, for many of us who thought Dara Joy's High Energy was amazing, High Intensity was a let-down. And (back to Garwood now), as much as I love Julie Garwood, The Wedding and Ransom were not the books The Bride or The Secret were.

Lori-Anne Cohen truly enjoys connected books; her favorite series is MJP's Fallen Angels series. She writes, "I enjoyed each book and loved the appearances of other characters a great deal. Still, I knew from the first book that I would hold a special place in my heart for Michael and that I was gonna have to wait for awhile for his book (Shattered Rainbows). I admit to reading through the other books again to get glimpses of him." For Lori-Anne, Blythe, and scores of other readers, Suzanne Brockmann's SEALS series works similarly. As the author herself points out, by uniting them by vocation rather than family ties, she can continue this series longer than most series last because she's not in danger of running out of family members.

As you can see, the concept of "comfort reads" encompasses quite a few larger topics that I'd love to have you discuss on the ATBF Message Board upon the conclusion of the column.

Let's Get Specific About the Big Mis:
We began a rather lengthy exploration of the Big Misunderstanding last month, and I promised we would get specific in this column about particular books and/or authors who handle this potentially disastrous plot device well and those books and/or authors who ruin perfectly good romances with the Big Mis.

A major topic of discussion when talking about the Big Mis is that of crime and punishment - how does the hero (most often) punish the heroine for her supposed betrayal and in what way does he then suffer for his egregious treatment of her? Is it, as LFL stated, that "even when they grovel and apologize, they never seem to understand that it's not their right to mete out punishment if the heroine did wrong them." Or can it be as Nancy Beth wrote, that "there is some form of punishment involved in almost every interaction in which one party wrongs another. It's whatever occurs between the wrongdoing and forgiveness. And I don't think it's wrong, as long as it stays within bounds."?

Suzanne Robinson's Lady Gallant was thoroughly analyzed in terms of the crime, punishment, and ultimate redemption of the hero. CD, for one, loved this book, even though, as she put it, "Christian was a total monster. He put Nora through what would constitute emotional torture in most peoples' books. It was a gross Big Mis of gigantic proportions." Meredith Moore, in her Desert Isle Keeper Review of this book, wrote that:

"Christian determines to make her life a living hell, keep her prisoner and destroy her every small comfort. He behaves despicably to Nora. . . (and) though he breaks her heart, he does not kill her spirit. . .When Christian realizes his terrible wrongdoing, his guilty suffering is glorious, because he so richly deserves it. And in a bold countermove, Nora turns the tables on him, and suddenly he is at her mercy. But why should she bother with him after hes been such a monster, you may wonder? Because even at his nastiest, he's scintillating. When Christian is vulnerable, well, he's still a very bad boy, but hard to resist. And Nora is, of course, gallant."

Not everyone described Lady Gallant in glowing terms. LFL, for instance, believes that, all too often, big misunderstandings are used to justify the hero's behavior and let him off the hook. She prefers heroes who wrong the heroine not because of any misunderstanding but because they are twisted - heroes who know that what they are doing is wrong and still do it. These characters, for her, "are closer to redemption than people who think some circumstances justify abuse. It's not a redemption to me if they don't realize that even if they'd been correct about the heroine, their behavior would still have been inexcusable." For LFL, this is what happened in Lady Gallant.

As mentioned in an earlier column on the Big Mis, humor can often make this type of plot device work. Pandora's Box co-columnist Linda Hurst mentioned Mary Balogh's The Famous Heroine, in which the heroine believes the hero is gay, making for a very unique wedding night. As Linda wrote, Cora "is surprised that he wants her on their wedding night. When she realizes her error, it is very funny, luckily the hero thinks so too. Many Regencies use the Big Mis; it oft times leads to farce and hilarity."

So true, echoed Carol and Lynn, who thought of Balogh's The Plumed Bonnet. The hero of this Regency Romance thinks the heroine is a prostitute and doesn't believe her explanations to the contrary. Lynn wrote, The way the hero and heroine work out the Big Mis is totally in character for both of them and gives the reader a lot of delight because we know both sides of the picture."

Susan Elizabeth Phillips' It Had to Be You is another romance with a strong comedic strain featuring the Big Mis. Vivien adored this book even though she is not a fan of the Big Mis plot device and, from reading her post, it seems she loved the book to some extent in spite of the Big Mis rather than because of it. And yet, whenever this plot device takes center stage in a romance, as it surely does in this one, it seems to me that the book is working because of it. In other words, many of us readers begrudge this device so much that we're not willing to give it the credit it sometimes deserves.

For some readers, the Big Mis can work when the hero gets over the heroine's betrayal and comes to love her again - regardless of whether or not she is proven not guilty of her supposed crimes. Iris Johanesen's The Tiger Prince was mentioned - the hero never discovers whether the heroine was innocent or guilty, which reminds me of why I so enjoy Merline Lovelace's romances - her characters are never victims of what others believe about them. I find this whole idea of moral ambiguity in romance quite appealing, because it's more like real life than the lack of gray encountered in many romances.

Say what you will about the writing abilities of Johanna Lindsey, but several of her titles were mentioned as having effective Big Mis sub-plots, and Big Secrets as well. Bridget, like many other romance readers, no longer reads Lindsey, but mentioned that her heroes consistently have plausible reasons for buying into the Big Mis and "gets over it" and falls in love regardless. She added, "He loves her in spite of this awful thing that he believes about her. He accepts what he sees to be her flaw and often acts to hide it from others or compensate for it to protect her. I think that's a very real part of how we treat those we love."

Just as the Big Mis engendered differing opinions in Suzanne Robinson's Lady Gallant, Katherine Kingsley's No Sweeter Heaven prompted similar, split reactions. For Lancene, the Big Mis, when the "saintly" Pascal misunderstands something he overhears Elizabeth say to a third party and then sequesters himself in a monastery, was beyond the pale. Lisa strongly disagrees - this book is one of her all-time favorites. As she explains it:

"Pascal had been incredibly patient and good to an Elizabeth who was grumpy, angry, willful (for very good reasons, she had been very badly treated by her family, but he could not help any of that and was the innocent victim of her bad behavior) and has been trying to bring her joy and contentment for most of the book. Then they finally find each other, but at this point, he just has no more patient understanding left when, once again, he feels that she is disloyal (or rather, that her whole behavior towards him rests on a lie). I found his reaction extreme, but I understood that he had reached the end of his rope, somehow. And it made him human, for me, he was not just a saint, but a man, a man who could misunderstand, and get hurt, and do something stupid, much better than if he had always behaved perfectly."

One of the most interesting threads flowed directly from Lancene and Lisa's discussion of No Sweeter Heaven. Whereas Lancene thinks "the perpetrator of the injustice should have to seek out the wronged party and ask for forgiveness," Lisa is more forgiving of a hero's lack of groveling behavior, particularly in older romances. And though Lancene wonders whether the authors of older romances had some really negative experiences with men in real life, Lisa thinks that she, her friends, and apparently many romance writers perhaps have a "misguided tolerance for bad male behavior." She recalls that:

"Many of us grew up in a world where men were spoilt to some extent, excused from chores, excessively praised for doing same things women were just expected to do (take out the trash, set a table), and where men could do more awful things like shouting, breaking stuff in anger, hitting and it was just considered normal. I remember thousands of times when I was told that 'but underneath, he is so sweet, so shy, so decent' about a boy. And I was always expected to be the one who looked 'underneath', and understood and excused the awful 'superficiality' of objectionable words, offensive behavior, etc. And still feed this guy and clean up after him. Many of my women friends had the same experience. And so we got used to excusing a lot of stuff in guys which are not really excusable, because 'underneath, he is so lovable.' I guess that carries over into romance, and apparently many writers have the same background: As long as he is a fundamentally decent human being, he can be a boor and a pig, and jealous and bossy and overbearing, because that is not so important."

Because I make such a strong distinction between fiction and reality, I'm not sure what to make of Lisa's comments, but I'd love to hear what you think when it's time to post to the ATBF Message Board.

Let's Talk (Some More) About Sex:

"Personally, I don't care for purple prose. I prefer the clinical words to manroot, lance of love, or honeyed cove. And I don't care for freakish metaphors for orgasm. Just tell me a person came, climaxed, orgasmed or had the big O. No being propelled across the heavens on downy clouds, and please, no bursting body parts.

"But hey, that's just my opinion. There are evidently readers who prefer their manroots bursting, and their honeyed coves propelled across the heavens."

--author Rachel Gibson

Thanks to everyone who participated in our discussion about silly sex words, terms, and phrases. We plan to take much of this material to create our Dictionary of Silly Sex. But first, here are some of the highlights (or perhaps lowlights?) of the discussion of "the big O."

The euphemistic terms many romances use to refer to a woman's orgasm, according to some readers, plays into the entire concept of the virginal heroine, which, as we all know, can be annoying in contemporary romance. Lynn wrote, "These terms really bring to mind the virgin contemporary heroine, who doesn't have any idea what an orgasm is, never ever got to know herself in the biblical sense. Those terms are almost always with 'reaching for something' the something being the orgasm that she of course has no idea what it is." (This is something Robin Schone wrote about in her controversial Rant about Sexuality last summer, albeit in relation to historical romance.)

Lynn's comments reminded Vivien of one of per own pet peeves - the description of orgasm as "reaching for something she could not name" in contemporary romance. Vivien added, "Wouldn't any healthy young woman of our time know what she was reaching for, even if she was a virgin? I really do not know why so much innocence and cluelessness is promoted." To which Jennifer responded, "Yes, that's a good one. That heroine who knows that something is going to happen, but what could it be? I think I read one recently in which, just before orgasm, the heroine wondered if she was dying. Honey, where have you been?"

For Bridget, "any kind of fireworks or pyrotechnic displays during climax" are silly. She wrote, "Sorry, but when you get a good one off you're not thinking 'Oh, this is just like the 4th of July!' You're not thinking at all. You might wonder 'oh-my-merciful-god-am-i-still-breathing' but rushing rivers and exploding suns and cosmic communion with every blessed thing in the universe? Gimme a break." Frankly, the idea of a virgin experiencing this type of release is silly to Patricia, who wrote, "I really can't see one 'climbing the cliffs of ecstasy' her first try up the mountain. Maybe she's thinking to herself, "'Hey, this could be good and next time I'll 'scale the peak of passion' or 'soar over the summit of desire.' "

Lori, along with many of our readers, prefers realistic language, particularly in contemporary love scenes, because it mirrors her own experience. "I've never used any word but 'come' in an intimate setting and I find it erotic in loves scenes. My personal favorite is 'Come with me' because it points out the emotional intimacy that can happen along with the physical In historicals it's easier to take a more euphemistic phrase especially those in the 'seed family' since reproduction was so closely associated with sex It makes sense to me that the characters would think of it in those terms."

Realistic language can also convey the intensity of the need characters have for each other, which is highly erotic for many of us while euphemism can have the unintended effect of causing the reader to either laugh in all the wrong places or not achieve the heightening result the author was going for. As Bridget said, "Who wants to read: 'He held her in his arms then they took a trip to the moon and planted a garden.' What's the point? Why not just skip it? It's incredibly sexy for a man to say he wants to see/hear/feel/make you come." Jennie agreed; she said she's lost count of how many romance love scenes in which euphemistic language "robbed them of their power."

Lis was kind enough to create a list for use in our upcoming Dictionary of Silly Sex of some of the euphemisms she's seen. I'd like to share it with you now:

Female Euphemisms:Reached her zenith
Crested in waves
Brought to pleasure
Crumbled over him (this I envision with much laughter because I envision cake or doughnuts somewhere in the mix)
Orgasm went on. And on. And on.
Rippling, pulsing, pressure and pleasure muscles clenched
Splintered apart
Male Euphemisms:Warmth flooded her
Took his release
Thrust until spent
Burst inside her like a tidal wave (hope she was still somewhere in the vicinity following the big one)
Expanded and released
Spurted into her deep
Growl of release
It overtook him
His release came hard and fast
Swelled and exploded - yikes!
F/M Euphemisms:Dancing toward the shore (Lord help me but that sounds rather too tame)
Bucked and came
Milked dry by the rhythmic pulse of her climax' (Beats dancing to the shore)
Spilling open
Exploded in release
Paroxysm of pleasure
Shattered reflexive tremors splintered together
Came in scalding pulsations.

Lis' all-time favorite line comes from Jennifer Crusie's Welcome to Temptation when, following a vigorous bout of lovemaking, "the hero claimed he'd been f'd six ways to Sunday."

It sounds to me as though there is somewhat of a lag between what is being published and what would be acceptable to the romance reading public. While publishing in general is often on the cutting edge of changes in societal mores, romance publishing, as we've seen since the 1970's, is more conservative. And while this next give-and-take doesn't refer to orgasm, it does point out that we can tolerate a whole lot more frank talk when it comes to matters sexual:

Ruby: "I don't mind the so-called 'crude' words like 'come' or 'wet' or 'hard-on.' I don't find them crude. They are what I prefer, especially in contemporaries."

LLB: "JAK has a great scene in Trust Me where Sam has Desdemona on top of his kitchen counter, his hands are in her panties and he tells her she's soaking wet. For whatever reason, I have always found that one moment one of the most erotic of any in a romance."

Ruby: "I read that scene. Very hot stuff."

There are certain aspects of sexuality that may or may not fit into your idea (or mine) of what is romantic. In a way what we find sexy is sometimes more confusing that what we find romantic. Romance does have certain rules - a happy ending being one. But in the area of non-romance, perfectly normal men and women can be turned on by things of which they aren't necessarily proud.

Clearly this tendency to be excited by sexy things that are not romantic is the case with many tortured heroes. Reading about them coming as they outgrow this phase of life can be quite romantic and sexy, but if we were to read about a typical Duke of Slut during this phase of life (going to brothels, having sex with multiple partners, etc.) it might be sexy but wouldn't be romantic. It would not leave us with that happy glow to it that romance gives us. How much of this side of life, the hero's or the heroine's - should a romance include? When is the line crossed? Are some books getting to close to it? Would you enjoy books that got closer?

Where does masturbation fit into your idea of romance? A number of books feature masterbation when the hero and heroine fantasizes about the object of his or her love. Another masterbation scenario is when the hero is so aroused by the heroine that he has no other option. Is this romantic? Is this the only way that masterbation should be used in a romance?

What about very frankly sexual "guy-talk" in a contemporary romance? Suzanne Brockmann has said that she tones down the language considerably in depicting fictionalized Navy SEALs because women would have a hard time reading the language that real military men use when they are working together. How far can a romance author stray from the euphemistic language we've grown accustomed to before they go too far? Do certain phrases seem particulary sexy to you. On the other hand, is some "guy-talk" language specifically hostile to women? Is it frightening? Finally, what about the heroine telling the hero what she wants and what she intends to do in a fair amount of detail. Sexy, yes, but romantic? We'd love to know what you think.

Stay tuned to further issues of this column for more on silly sex, and to AAR in general for the debut of our Dictionary of Silly Sex.

Time to Post to the Message Board:
Here are some specific questions to think and post about:

What's Comfortable - How do you define a "comfort read?" How did your own list of comfort read authors compare and/or contrast to the results we recently posted?
First as Favorites - Do you find that when you fall in love with an author, it's the first book you read by her that remains your favorite? What authors have you had this experience with, and what authors defy the "first as favorites" paradigm? Can we extend the "first as favorites" paradigm from authors to sub-genres?
Family and Friends - Why do you think so many of us are drawn to interrelated romances? Which series of interconnected books have you most enjoyed? Are there any series that you feel fizzled before the author stopped writing the series? What are the strengths and pitfalls of writing related books?
Bad Male Behavior - Because we've spent a lot of time lately on the Big Mis, let's focus now on Lisa's comments on how readers and authors may have a "misguided tolerance for bad male behavior." Is it possible that, as Lisa wrote, "As long as he is a fundamentally decent human being, he can be a boor and a pig, and jealous and bossy and overbearing, because that is not so important"?
Moral Ambiguity - Many of the actions taken in romance novels result from morally ambiguous positions taken by the characters. This moral ambiguity can lead to both the Big Mis and the Big Secret. Do you enjoy this type of ambiguity or do you wish for more clear-cut choices in the books you read?
Let's Talk About Masturbation - Rather than focusing on virginal heroines in contemporary romance solely, let's talk about the cluelessness of many a modern-day heroine who is apparently among the few never "got to know herself in the biblical sense." Does this bother you, and, where does masturbation fit into your idea of a romance?
The Seamy Side - What's sexy may not be romantic - when is that line crossed for you? Authors often provide glimpses of the past lives of their lead characters to contrast what their lives were before they found love. Do you enjoy these glimpses? How much of a backstory do you like? And, in those romances where the transformation is quite late in the story, how "seamy" can an author make that character's behavior before you tune out?
Is Crude Rude? - How do you react to dialogue such as Jennifer Crusie's line by the hero who said he'd been "f'd six ways since Sunday?" Where does what some consider realistic "guy-sex-talk" fit into your idea of a romance? How far should romance authors stray from those euphemisms before you are turned off? Are we there already?

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