Issue #105 (November 1, 2000)

Mrs. Giggles Guests

Hello there! Itís me, Mrs. Giggles, and Iíve hijacked this issue of ATBF. Iíve never done a column or even a newsletter before so this is a cool first. Should I introduce myself first?

Okay, Iím actually a nice old lady named Jenny Lim who reads too many romance novels for her own good. And maybe talks too much, but thatís another story. I go online by the name of Mrs. Giggles, because Barbara Streisand is already taken and trademarked (darn). And in this ATBF hijack, Iím going to talk about my favorite topic: sex. Sexís supposed to be nice and fun (if one is lucky), but I wouldnít know it from many romance novels I read. Then Iíll add my two centsí worth about The Golden Age of Romance (whatís that?), and finally, a light comedy (hopefully) as closure.

Okay, before I start, I ought to say this. These views of mine may or may not represent Laurie and the AAR gangís opinions, and therefore any mistake, politically incorrect statements, embarrassing or inflammatory remarks shouldnít be taken against them. Itís not their fault. Itís not mine either. The printer goblins did them. So sue them, not AAR, not me.

Shall we begin?

Good Girls Don't, Wise Girls Won't: The Horrifying Evil that is Sex

If you ask me, the biggest plague on romance heroines isnít blackmailers, murderers, greedy wards, poverty, or evil mothers-in-law. Okay, poverty comes close, but nothing beats sex when it comes to giving romance heroines headaches. In fact, for many unwise heroines who happened to stray from the true path of celestial virginity, danger awaits. Not even the sanctity of marriage would offer security against these dangers. A heroine without her hymen is fresh meat for all sorts of emotional and physical turmoil.

Letís start with the hymenally challenged ladies. How many sexually experienced heroines have lived happy lives pre-meeting the hero? Letís see, I have scanned my bookshelves of keepers and I really canít find one. Here are my few encounters with sexually experienced heroines and the trouble they have to go through before experiencing their sexual awakening. By the way, Iím not counting the unhappy widows or ex-fiancťes, or this list would be an encyclopedia of sad stories.

The Thiefís Mistress by Gayle Feyrer
ďMaidĒ (haha) Marian witnessed her fatherís murder and her motherís rape and mutilation, and she experiences sex because she is sure she is about to die on her quest of vengeance on these murderers and she wants to experience coitus before she expires.

Winter Garden by Adele Ashworth
Opium smoking and neglectful mommy

Petals In The Storm by Mary Jo Putney
A gang rape started it all

Then Came You by Lisa Kleypas
And look where it got her - missing baby and he turns out to be the Scum of the Century

Heart Of Deception by Taylor Chase
Well, she is a crime queenÖ

First Kiss by Marilyn Pappano
Lousy childhood

WIFE Is A Four-Letter Word by Stephanie Bond
She may have a sexual position named after her, but yeah, her childhood stinks

Right Chapel, Wrong Couple by Colleen Collins
He turned out to be a mob boss. . . .

If I were impressionable, Iíd think all sexually experienced women are deficient in some ways after reading all these books. Lousy childhood, full of abuse and substance abuses, and lots of guilt over their lifestyles - what sad lot, these women are. A really bad romance novel, if you ask me, would be one that has the heroines wishing they were pure for the heroís plucking.

And compare that to the heroesí lot. I donít see them queuing up for welfare checks after losing their virginity at a brothel at a way-too-young age. I donít see them whining, ďOh, why canít I be an inexperienced lily for my belovedís touches?Ē

Fine, maybe we love to read about manly men teaching our heroines the joys of sex. But why then should our heroines undergo so many traumas as if to apologize for their sex lives? Itís not fair. If I were a romance heroine Iíd be seeing a lawyer by now.

Now, letís go on to sex after meeting the hero. Even then, a heroine still isnít safe from Danger and Psychological Traumas. For instance, in Kat Martinís Silk And Steel the heroine got trapped in a marriage with a vengeful and reluctant groom. Uh oh. In LaVyrle Spencerís November Of My Heart, the heroine got pregnant and her parents as well as her lover turned against her and hurt her so brutally I was sure she would never recover. In these cases, pregnancies became a means to hurt the heroine, while marriage became a gilded cage where the heroine had to keep hammering at the hero so that he would accept her.

And letís not venture into the territory of category romances and the consequences of one-night-stands, over-fertile ovaries, and over-energetic spermatozoa cells, or Iíll never finish this column.

It had been awhile since I read about a nice, pleasant morning-after, mind you. Itís always the heroineís deflowering followed by forced marriage, more deceptions, surprise babies, and the hero turning against her for reasons illogical or reasonable.

So what have I learned? Sex is never pleasant thing unless it happens in the epilogue. No matter how wonderful he murmured promises and how sweet his touch was, when morning came. . .bye-bye bliss, hello regret. Speaking of which, why is it that most heroinesí reaction after their first orgasm is not ďCoo, that was fun! Letís do it again!Ē but ďIím doomed! I will have a baby! I am regretting this! I feel guilty! Very guilty! I must run away and hide in shame!Ē

This is what I read in Julia Londonís The Ruthless Charmer, Maggie Osborneís I Do, I Do, I Do (which I still call fondly as I Wonít, I Shouldnít, I Couldnít), and many rake-spinster romances abound. While the hero lies back on his bed, dazed and getting ready for the next rumpy-pumpy session, the heroine is already halfway down the mental hysteria and shame road.

Why is this? Is it because good girls shouldnít enjoy sex?

Even in many romances that pair a spinster with a rake, itís always her taking off her clothes for him for the sake of (a) him not ruining her silly younger brother or (b) him not taking away her ancestral home. And then, do I see her enjoying her sexual awakening? Not much of a chance. Most the time the hero has to practically pry open her legs with some metaphorical jack. ďNo, no, no, no, Iím a proper lady, I shouldnít feel this even though Iíve felt it a million times already thanks to you - ooh, yes yes yes yes yes yes yes baby!Ē is such a tiring theme song after a zillionth time.

Which is why I enjoyed novels by Amanda Quick and Loretta Chase. Their heroines start out virginal or sexually inexperienced, but boy, do they learn to embrace and have fun fast. If that is not realistic in context of Regency times, it is at least real to me in context of being a woman in the tutorship of an experienced and virile man who could bestow upon her multiple orgasms - snap! - just like that. A real woman would sit back and enjoy, darn the morning after. Heck, sheíll have a good time, and sheíll definitely want more encores.

Back to the dangers of sex to romance heroines. If I run a school of conduct for romance heroines, here is what I will prescribe:

Anyway, I believe I have rambled long enough about how bad sex can be on women in romance novels. I am not holding my breath for a long-overdue Flower Power Austin Powers ďShag Me Baby!Ē revolution, however, since I believe the current situation is due to three-parts easy plot machination, one part lazy and habitual writing, and one part leftover of puritanical values. But hereís a plea to authors: if you want a tortured heroine, please try not to add in babies and sexual experience. Thatís such an old plot device.

Now, letís talk about this Golden Age of Romance, shall we, and pull the curtains down on the sex talk? No, I didnít coin the term. The term came up in a recent discussion at the ATBF Message Board. Overseas reader Vivien wrote:

"I agree that the golden age of romance was in fact in the (early) 1990's. I was not aware of that until recently, when I noticed that most of the books I submitted to the TOP 100 poll were written between 1990 and 1995, maybe 1996. Laura Kinsale, Patricia Gaffney, Sandra Brown, Linda Howard, Teresa Medeiros, Penelope Williamson and others wrote their most complex and in my opinion most satisfying romances in that period. Now some of them have moved into mainstream or, as in the case of Medeiros, seem to focus on the lighter side of romances, and to be honest, I am a bit disappointed by this trend. Like you, I want to sink my teeth into a book, want some darkness and redemption, an intricate and maybe complicated plot and historical detail. As far as historical romances are concerned, the market is in my opinion declining, though Judith Ivory and Adele Ashworth are notable exceptions.

LLB, Robin, as well as authors Teresa Medeiros and Marsha Canham will be talking more fully about this in the next issue of ATBF, but Laurie asked me for my own two cents. Here goes.

Iím not too sure exactly what makes a Golden Age a - well, golden age. I think the lady above defines the term using complexity and daringness, maybe uniqueness of a plot as a yardstick. If I look at it that way, I will have to agree.

What makes a romance novel so special, relevant to its mostly female readers? In the collection of essays featuring many of the best-selling authors of 1990-1995, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, they propose a mission. A motto, if you will. That their works would highlight themes relevant to women and maybe even make women aware of these themes and issues. Thatís very nice, I thought at the moment, and even showed that book to my feminist colleague.

But now, where are the issues? Whereís the complexity? Avon releases four non-Superleader romances a month, and out of them, usually the three historicals are a variation of Regency bluestocking/Earl romance, Highland feud and arranged marriage plot, or a Western cowboy bang-bang adventure. The contemporary romance is always a Millionaire saving a Damsel from Poverty and Ditziness, although there are, of course, exceptions (Michelle Jerott, Mary Alice Kruesi, Neesa Hart). The Superleads are usually a more expensive upgrade of any of these themes. (Again, there are notable exceptions, Judith Ivory coming to mind.) And most of these romances are light in terms of emotional issues.

Or if they have emotional issues, chances are these issues are over-killed (Catherine Anderson, in my opinion, and Linda Francis Lee - who does not write for Avon) before redemption comes in sugar-coated pop psychology (usually by blaming the heroís childhood).

But how is all this relevant to the Golden Age issue above? Actually, Iím not too sure. I did take a scan of my keepers from the 1990-1995 era. It sure looked like a different world back then. I have romances set in ancient Rome (Defy The Eagle by Lynn Bartlett), I have magical tales of swan witches (the Swan Witch trilogy by Bettina Lindsey), and there are stories that take me to distant worlds (Justine Davis, Marilyn Campbell). Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz never failed to entertain, there are still heroes who hold normal jobs instead of wearing uniforms and saving the world, et cetera.

Now there are very few futuristic or paranormal romances in mainstream romance markets. Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz seems like a parody of her former self in her later releases, and I no longer enjoy Teresa Medeiros, Jane Feather, and many authors previously on my auto-buy list. But is it because my taste has changed or because their writing style remains stagnant or has evolved to a style beyond my liking, I am still not sure. Maybe itís a mixture of all three.

I do feel that todayís romances can sometimes border on frivolous, relying too much on humor and lighthearted chase-the-killer romps sometimes at the expense of emotional development. The romances can feel tacked-on, i.e. ďLetís put a love scene at page 56 and 287 and ta-da! We have a romance!Ē. Authors canít write about foreign setting - never sell - or political troubles - readers may be turned off by a non-horsy, peaceful Ireland - et cetera.

But the same can be said of the early 1990s too, can it? Maybe the editorial regulations is a little less rigid then, compared to today where the editors and authors try to please everyone and lose more and more focus each time they do that. But I doubt todayís romances are less dark in any significant amount or less complex than yesterdayís books. Julia Ross/Jean Ross Ewing still writes dark romances. Connie Brockway can do dark well, and so can Karen Ranney. Marsha Canhamís epic swashbuckling stuff can be dark too. How dark is dark, anyway?

I think the question here is, how does a reader define a Golden Age? If I see it in terms of setting and plot diversity, why yes, the 1990s with the futuristic and paranormal bloom can be considered one. But then again, there are so many bad romances in this sub-genre as well as light-hearted, fluffy romps too. I am not a fan of Laura Kinsaleís (excruciatingly, in my opinion) detailed and verbose romances where the heroes really make the heroines work to win their affections, and I am not a fan of old-school epic medievals of Roberta Gellis and her comtemporaries, so I canít really say I miss those sort of complexity in todayís romances.

I actually have as many auto-buy authors today as in the 1990s, actually, and Iím known as a fussy reader. Connie Brockway, Judith Ivory, Adele Ashworth, Marsha Canham, Jillian Hunter, Liz Carlyle, Madeline Hunter, Michele Jerott, Anne Stuart. . .I can go on some more, but I doubt people are interested. <g>

So what Iím saying is: I think itís all in the mind, subjective to each reader. Some authors mentioned fondly when we mention the 1990s have long abandoned their romance roots for the mainstream womenís fiction market. Others try to cater to a greater audience by writing light ďletís get as many readers as we canĒ funnies that old fans may perceive as selling-out. I find that there are always new authors to discover, those who can take an old plot and turn it into something new and refreshing. While yes, I do recall the 1990s fondly - I started reading romances then, after all - I wonít actually consider it any better or worse than today.

If I look hard enough - sometimes thatís a lot of work, I work - thereís always a good book lying around waiting to be read.

Okay, I think I have hogged enough bandwidth here. I have to catch up with my reading anyway. So, before I go, I thought Iíll leave behind this nice lilí short scene called Conversations in a Moonlit Garden. Itís supposed to be funny, by the way. Have fun, but before you start reading, don't forget to put your tongue firmly into your cheek!

Conversations in a Moonlit Garden:
At a Very Typical Moonlit Garden At A Party Held By A Bossy Society Matron, during the peak London season. . .

Cast:Sir Blake Ravensworth Hawthorne, Earl of Sharpcrest - a rake tortured
Lady Felicity Naggersworth, a very proper bluestocking Struck by Poverty

Felicity: Blake, we need to talk.
Blake:But Fel, weíre supposed to - you know, get compromised and discovered so that we will be forced to get married.
Felicity:I know, and Iíve had enough.
Blake:But youíre not even supposed to know that. Youíre not even supposed to have any yet.
Felicity: Iím not talking about that, nincompoop. Iím talking about me being stereotyped. I donít want to do this anymore. I quit!
Blake:But you canít quit. Itís not in the script!
Felicity: But toss the script! Jeez, I canít even swear right. See what I mean? If Iím supposed to be a feisty, intelligent bluestocking well read in Wallstonecraft as well as Miss Manners, I may as well act it. Iím quitting my job as a Regency Romance Heroine and Iím out of here.
Blake:Hold it, what about me?
Felicity: Why do you care? Youíre having fun cavorting with your opera singers and lusty widows. Go back to them. Iím going to buy a ticket to America and audition for a side role in a Stephanie Plum novel. At least there I can cuss.
Blake:Whoa, wait a minute, miss, whatís that supposed to mean? You think I like being forced to cavort with those women? Have you seen or worse, listened to those women? (shudders) Itís like sticking my John Thomas into a blender. So much nastiness, so much malice. And Iím supposed to like them. Heck, right now Iím engaged to a non-virginal, evil, scheming debutante. You think readers will think me smart? I doubt it.
Felicity: But at least you can have fun, Blakey!
Blake:Hey, donít call me Blakey.
Felicity:Blakey, you can drink. You can have fun. You can marry me for money. You can go to gambling dens and seduce and abuse. Me, Iím stuck in a bore. Iím broke (yes, Iím broke, the script says Iím supposed to pretend to be an heiress to marry a rich bloke), but am I marrying for money? Yes, but Iím not supposed to spend a single penny on myself. Iím supposed to sponsor my spoiled, bratty lilí sister Penny whom Iím supposed to adore even when she treats me like a doormat! I hate being broke! I want nice dresses, and Iíve had it waiting for a man to take me to the modiste.

You know whatís worse? I must feel guilty because Iím lying to you, while you can lie to me smugly all the way you want. I hate that! The script insists I go into a mental hysteria overdrive, and thatís the last straw.

I am going to get money the smart way. If my stupid daddy - donít me started about his callous negligence of me and my sister, and worse, his neglect to teach me anything but Math, and Iím supposed to tear up when I think of him, How insulting is that?! - had taught me proper skills, I may be a millionaire by now.

Blake:But youíre not being fair. Have you considered the lot Iím stuck in? I canít have fun and wave my John Thomas around without having to kill my best friend and feel guilty over it. And god, Iím supposed to hate and distrust all women too because of my scheming ex-wife who cheated on me with my best friend, the very one I accidentally killed but now I mourn over because weíre supposed to blame that scheming harlot instead? Itís so stupid. The script insists I drink myself silly and act bad. I donít mind bad, but not when it comes with me hating all women and blaming myself left and right for everything.
Felicity:Reality check, mídear. I am supposed to blame myself left and right. Last time I check, Iím supposed to blame myself for my Daddyís death (I canít cure him with my Country Healing Skills), for my sisterís abysmal wardrobe, for your marrying me (Iím lying to you, after all), and worse, because I made you marry me when Iím sure you donít love me. As if Iím so dense as to believe you love that irritating shrewish harlot fiancťe of yours instead. As an intelligent bluestocking, I am insulted beyond belief that the scriptwriter makes me this stupid.
Blake:Great. Now you made me feel sorry for my own existence in this stupid romance novel.
Felicity: I wouldnít call it stupid. Maybe trite, maybe badly written. It canít be stupid, not when Iím in it.
Blake:You know, I do like you better now than when youíre looking at me in adoring eyes. You are much more interesting now.
Felicity: Oh, Blakey, thatís so sweet. And you sound much more fun now that I know youíre only whining because the script made you do it.
Blake:Me whine? Have you read those parts where youíre supposed to be psychoanalyzing? (shudders)
Felicity: I know. I feel sick too.
Blake:Well, great. So what do we do now. Iím not in the mood to go through the rest of the story. Getting compromised, getting married, and bickering left and right - yucks.
Felicity:Well, I do have a spare ticket for my trip to America. Iím supposed to bring Penny along, but now - let her find her own way, that irritating spoiled brat.
Blake:Are you sayingÖ?
Felicity: Oh yes, Blakey, oh yes.
Blake:I love it when youíre scheming, my dear. Your place or mine?
Felicity:Oh, you Romeo you! (jumps into Blakeís arms) My place! My place! I have this stash of erotic manuals I hid from the Producer and Director, and thereís this new position IÖ (whispers into Blakeís ear)
Blake actually blushes, but he couldnít carry Felicity fast enough out of the garden. Just in time too, as Felicityís angry mother and a group of Society matrons burst from the bushes at the moment. The ladies looked around, stunned, at the empty clearing, but our two lovebirds are long gone then on their way to their own happy ending.

Time to Post to the Message Board:
Here are the questions we'd like to have you consider this time:

Good Girls Don't, Wise Girls Won't - When romance novels feature heroines who are, as Mrs. Giggles calls them, "hymenally challenged," they are often made to suffer for it. Do you feel, as she does, that some of these women should "be seeing a lawyer by now" to recover their losses? Why does it seem as though romance novel heroines "undergo so many traumas as if to apologize for their sex lives?" Finally, what do you make of her statement that "Sex is never pleasant thing unless it happens in the epilogue?"
More on Good Girls Don't, Wise Girls Won't - How does Mrs. Giggles' code of conduct for romance novel heroines strike you? Would you add any other items to the list or delete others? And, in a catch-all, feel free to comment on any other part of her rant on what sex does to women in the land of the romance novel.
The Golden Age of Romance - We do plan on revisiting this topic again next time, and, to be fair, many readers consider the "Golden Age" to have started at the end of the 1980's rather than the start of the 1990's. What are your thoughts on whether 1988 - 1995 (roughly) was the "Golden Age of Romance?" If you disagree on this period, is there another period you find more golden?
More on the Golden Age of Romance - What are your comments on Mrs. Giggle's take on the Golden Age of Romance? While she focused on Avon's romance program, could her comments be extrapolated to all the romance publishers? Are some doing better than others at providing depth? Re: the "motto" from Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, has she simply been reading the wrong books and has missed the complexity and issues she craves?
Conversations in a Moonlit Garden - Mrs. Giggles provided a veritable potpourri of romance novel conventions in her parody of the historical romance. Which, if any, of these conventions, are among your pet peeves? Which, if any, do you enjoy reading even though you've likely read them time and time again. Share some titles and authors if you can. And, if it's time to start another list of pet peeves, be our guest!

-- Mrs. Giggles

(Find a link to Mrs. Giggles' web site from this jump link to our links page)

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