Laurie's News & Views

October 31, 1996 - Issue #14

Now that Black Tuesday (as I am referring to October 7 when my off-line e-mail program crashed, taking with it my nearly 400-reader e-mailing list and the e-mails for September thru October 7 - try writing an interactive column without the interaction!) is more a memory than a recent catastrophe, I am trying to get on with my life and the business of this column.

Providence has a way of coming to the rescue when things seem particularly bleak. I was contacted by Publishers Weekly and interviewed for a romance feature they are preparing. With the publisher of The Romance Reader on vacation, I was thrilled to speak on behalf of both The Romance Reader and The Archives of Laurie Likes Books web sites. The feature is set to be published in early to mid November. Look for it in your bookstore or on-line at http ://www.bookwire.com/. I can only say it certainly was different to be answering questions instead of asking them!

You can also imagine how excited I was to open my e-mail this past weekend and find a lovely note from Sharon and Tom Curtis a.k.a. Laura London. They wanted me to know they had discovered The Romance Reader and The Archives of Laurie Likes Books. They also wanted to share some good news of their own.

Sharon wrote, "We're excited because we finally finished something. Bantam is going to publish a short romance of ours in an anthology coming out next summer. Everyone there has been so supportive of us, which is always great." Fans of this talented couple should know that their Love's a Stage is being reissued in December.

Rescue Me

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Quite a while ago I mentioned a reader's request for a listing of heroines who rescue their heroes. I also asked for input on why the theme of heroes rescuing heroines is so resonant even today when women are equal to most any task. While I can't speak about woman before my generation, I think that the idea of romance as fantasy really speaks to women today. And that provides, for many of us, the reason the hero as rescuer is such a vivid draw for readers.

So many of the topics discussed in this column are connected. For instance, Jill wrote me about the Gilligan's Island Syndrome and that she doesn't "need to hear (read) about the nuts and bolts of daily life (bathrooms and the like - although with a passing comment about how women deal with their periods in the 1000's would be interesting once or twice. . . ." But mostly Jill is into the fantastical nature of romance:

I think it all boils down to how we see romance novels. I think I am like you, I think of it as a nice little fantasy - I am not interested in anything that deals with modern life (paying the rent, bad jobs, worse bosses -- and what is apparently a big deal today, who was abused as a child!). I don't want my romances too real. If I want reality I will go out and deal with the world. When I read, I want to be swept away to some other land or time and forget about the killer things in my life. It's also why I read sci-fi, fantasy and murder mysteries.

Another reader fuses the fantasy issue to the denigration often faced by lovers of the genre. Read what J.T. has to say about modern culture, the alpha male, fantasy, and romance:

A lot of the bad stereotypes have a lot to do with misogyny, but I think it is also related to a puritanical culture that is uncomfortable with the idea of anyone (and women especially) doing anything for pure pleasure. Right now, people can hardly admit to enjoying food for its own sake. The fat-free, low-cal, bran-muffin regime does not accommodate pleasure and I think the same kind of thing exists for reading. No one wants to admit that they are reading something purely for pleasure. That is why a reader's defense usually goes something like this . . ."I know I should be reading something more [difficult, intellectual, demanding, pick a word], but . . . " No one should ever be ashamed of reading for pleasure. Reading anything at all is more intellectually stimulating than watching MTV, television in general, going to the movies, etc. Especially now when fewer and fewer people are reading, romance readers should not feel forced to defend their reading preferences.

But I think the attraction of the alpha-male has to do with escape. It's nice to read about a hero like this in a book, but I don't think we would want to marry him. The distance provided by the novel allows us to appreciate qualities in a hero that would annoy and/or enrage us in real life. Likewise, things that we really appreciate in real life--our boyfriend washing the dishes, cleaning the bathroom -- would seem out of place in a novel. I don't see anything wrong with wanting to escape for a few hours to the nineteenth-century with an alpha-male hero, and the escape is made all the better by the fact that we can return any time we want to.

Candace finds the fantastical nature of romance to be life-affirming and hopeful in these days of children killing children, a divorce rate of 50%, and any number of other depressing true-life struggles. She writes:

After a day in the hard-core business world of computers, and listening to the news and reading the newspapers about man's inhumanity to man on a daily basis, the stress of juggling major parts of life - I live for a romance to provide a breath of air. Yes, there are struggles in romance, yes, there is disease in romance, yes, bad things sometimes happen -- but in a romance book it must always end well. If I wanted to see people cheating on people, mass murder, hate and disease I could turn on the news. Now, that's not to say I don't enjoy the good legal or medial suspense, or a good cop story - but a steady diet of these genres are not what I consider hope inducing.

Tonyia takes things a step farther (and back to the original point of the rescue theme). She doesn't particularly care for the new trend in contemporary romance of ultra-powerful business-women. She writes, "I don't like this new trend of women needing to be powerful and adept at men's pursuits. Women are powerful if they can use their brains to get out of a situation or solve a conflict. That's power to me. Turning an arrogant hero into a loving partner -- that's power. . . But above all, the romance has to be the main story. Too many books these days concentrate on the external conflicts and they take over the story instead of weaving into it."

Speaking of Which:
Tonyia makes an interesting point when she says that the romance has to be focus of a romance. I think it is silly that this is a point that needs to be discussed, but is does. I recently read a book labeled "historical romance" on its spine, but guess what? It wasn't a romance. It was an historical with some romance thrown in. It was Bertrice Small's Love, Remember Me.

This is not the first book I've read or heard of that was called a romance but wasn't. Catherine Coulter told me that The Cove was straight suspense although it was labeled romantic suspense. Louise Titchener told me her last two books have been labeled romantic suspense although she wrote them as straight suspense. While Kathryn Lynn Davis' books may not be labeled on their spines as historical romances, they are marketed as such by her publisher. And, Anne Stuart's last two contemporary single titles are rather less romances and rather more suspense novels.

In none of these cases, by the way, is this at the request of the author. No, the publisher makes all these decisions. It can create problems for both readers and authors because the reader comes away thinking the author blew it and the author isn't reaching the audience she wants to.

In other cases, however, the author really has blown it. She has intended to write a romance but has thrown in so much other junk that the romance ceases to be the primary focus.

Regardless of the intent, this is an issue of importance for readers. Back in June, Samantha wrote, "I think that there are too many romances being published under the guise of being a romance novel and, in fact, (they) are not. Honestly, what could be more annoying than sitting down to read a good love story and discovering that it's actually something else entirely?"

Contrast Samantha's comments with those of Elisabeth, who is all for broadening the concept of romantic fiction. She and I disagree about the writing of Bertrice Small. Whereas I believe this author writes erotic historical fiction, Elisabeth says:

I have only read one Bertrice Small ... she did strike me as having painted a believable picture of the period. In some respects, she's very realistic -- women got raped, their husbands died and they married again, etc. From what I understand of the Skye O'Malley series, she even lets them love twice!

Is this romance? I think the genre is big enough to accommodate her. Gabaldon doesn't conform to some of the genre norms, and there are those who don't think of her as a romance writer, either. But I would hate to see the genre become too narrow -- it will lose me (or I will lose it) altogether, and it really will become too narrow, which will end any hope it had of becoming more respected, because it will seem more formulaic.

I'm one of those who doesn't think of Diana Gabaldon as a romance writer. I don't think of Kathryn Lynn Davis as one either. Both write wonderful, epic fiction that is very romantic. I have no problem with romantic fiction viewed narrowly because it is, after all, genre fiction. I like to be able to pick up a romance and know that it will focus on the love between a man and a woman.

So, where do you fall on the issue of labeling? Should romance be more broadly defined or more narrowly drawn? What books have you read that aren't really romance? Do you suspect the author has blown it or that her publisher has mislabeled it? What book(s) was it? When you have read such a book, did it bother you or were you able to accept the story for what it was not (namely, a romance)? I realize I've asked a lot of questions here, but please think about them and e-mail me with your responses.

And Now, Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Topic:
In Issue 8 of Laurie's News & Views, we discussed the following books wherein the heroines rescue their heroes. Never mind that, according to one reader, "when women get to save the day it only takes a chapter or two, not the whole book, (as it does) when a man does it." Here then, is that original listing of titles wherein the heroine rescues her hero:

  • Jude Deveraux's Velvet Angel
  • Julie Garwood's Guardian Angel, Castles, and The Gift,
  • Elizabeth Elliott's The Warlord
  • Danelle Harmon's My Lady Pirate
  • Deborah Simmons' The Devil Earl and The Vicar's Daughter manage to save themselves a couple of times

Some readers did write in to add to the discussion about heroines who rescue their heroes. One reader reminded me that in Christina Skye's Bride of the Mist, both the hero and heroine save each other throughout the story. And, after perusing my bookshelves once more, I recalled that the heroine in Linda Lael Miller's Princess Annie saves her hero as well. If you have any titles to add to these, please e-mail me here.

Most readers, however, simply address their love of strong heroines. I agree with them. While for me a wonderful hero is necessary to love a romance, a strong heroine helps immensely. In fact, heroines who behave honorably (a trait once considered impossible for a woman) or conduct themselves with incredible grace under pressure are among my favorites. Here is a listing of titles I've enjoyed where the heroines fit the bill:

  • Julie Garwood's Honor's Splendour, Saving Grace, Lion's Lady, and The Prize
  • Ruth Langan's Highland Heather
  • Merline Lovelace's His Lady's Ransom and Sweet Song of Love
  • Elizabeth Lowell's Untamed
  • Rexanne Becnel's Thief of My Heart
  • Rae Muir's The Pearl Stallion
  • Suzanne Simmons' Bed of Roses
  • Lisa Ann Verge's Heaven In His Arms
  • Patricia Rice's Denim and Lace
  • Catherine Hart's Irresistible

In addition to those titles, here are some sent in by readers. Alexandra admired the heroines from Karen Robard's One Summer and Mary Jo Putney's The Rake and the Reformer. These heroines were special to her for their trust and strength of character.

Andrea writes:

I like heroines who are heroes. Either because they have rescued the hero in a physical or emotional way, or because they have faced a tragedy or survived an unpleasant past. The heroines I like are not whiners. . . My favorite heroines are able to put the past behind them and make a good life for themselves.

To be specific:

  • Polly from Jane Feather's Heart's Folly. She survived a childhood in a 17th century tavern, she fell in love with the hero and when he needed saving from a traitor's death, and she bartered herself to the Duke of Buckingham with great courage.
  • Claire from Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. She refused to accept Jamie's death sentence and used great courage to rescue him from prison. She even fought off a wolf barehanded!
  • Sophie from Jane Feather's Silver Nights. She could ride and shoot as well as a man and refused to be a victim when she found herself married to a brutal man.
  • Gracie Snow from Sandra Brown's Heaven, Texas saved Bobby Tom from himself and every other person he came in contact with by being the only person who never took anything from him.

I really love that line at the end of Pretty Woman when Richard Gere asks Julia Roberts what the princess did after she was rescued by the prince. She says "She rescues him right back!"

Angie loves a heroine who "goes after a man". She writes, "In Johanna Lindsey's The Magic of You, Amy pursued Warren and it was a lively chase. I love to see a woman who knows what she wants and goes after it. Especially if the man puts up a fight. I hate wimpy heroines."

Reader Maureen harks back to our discussions of non-alpha heroes, those heroes who seem to be flesh-and-blood. She applies the same standard to heroines ... and the winner is Claire Fraser from Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. Maureen writes that, "She [Claire], more than any other character is a real woman to me because her life through these books is much much more than her relationship with her husband. Looking at the 18th century through the eyes of a 20th century woman made the details of living much more vivid and my connection with her character much more personal."

So we've got heroines who are special because they save their heroes. We've got heroines who are special because they are honorable and exhibit grace under pressure. We've got heroines who don't whine and dwell on their pasts. We've got women who are flesh-and-blood. And we've got heroines who are all-round capable, willing to go for what they want even if it's against the dictates of society.

I must say that gathering information on special heroines has been difficult. I think it might have something to do with the fact that many of us read romance more for the hero than the heroine. Author Judith O'Brien, when responding to a query I sent her about an upcoming feature entitled Cast Your Book, took things a step farther. While she was quite willing to cast an actor in her favorite book, she wouldn't cast an actress because she tries "to get the reader to empathize with the heroines, and really feel that casting them might alienate the reader."

What do you think? Why is it easier for us to come up with favorite heroes than heroines? Is it because we are women who love men? Is it because we identify so closely with the heroines that we imagine we are them? Does it go back to the fantasy aspect and wanting to be rescued? I'm interested in your thoughts on this, and in trying to compile a reasonable listing of special heroines. Please e-mail me here with your responses.

Ah, The Mid-List:
I promised last time to update you on the mid-list column I wrote a while back. To jog your memories, that column discussed the mid-list crisis, presented different ways publishers were combating the crisis, focused a bit on a trend disturbing to me, and provided an impassioned plea from author Patricia Potter.

Since writing that column I have received a plethora of responses from readers and authors. Because that column tied, in part, to an even earlier column on publishers, I need to say that the support I've received from readers has been humbling. Thank you.

The mid-list column and the column about publishers prompted author Janeen Deboard to defend one of the publishers that did not fare well in the publisher survey. She makes many valid points and I would like to share her letter with you in its entirety.

I read with interest the readers' comments about publishers -- about how those like Avon and Pocket were the best, while others, such as Leisure and Zebra, did not always seem to measure up.

I'd like to point out another side to this question. Big publishers such as Avon and Pocket are willing and able to pay top dollar for manuscripts, so it is only natural that they have the best authors the experienced ones at the top of the field. However, they will not consider any manuscript unless it is submitted by an agent and the author already has some kind of track record. If you are a new writer, you have virtually zero chance of selling to one of these publishers.

On the other hand, Leisure and Zebra are very open to new writers. You can send them an unsolicited manuscript and you don't need an agent. Now, this also means that they are going to be publishing some new and inexperienced writers -- those still learning their craft.

I may be a little biased about this; my first novel, the time-travel Lady Of Fire, was pulled out of the slush-pile by an editor at Leisure Books and now it's on the shelves. Of course I hope that everyone will enjoy this book, but if it doesn't measure up that's my fault -- not Leisure's!

I will always be grateful to Leisure Books for giving me, and a lot of other new and mid-list authors, a chance to break in and grow and learn.

We all have to start somewhere. And by picking up a "mid-list" book now and then, readers have the chance to find new favorites and watch their careers take off.

Another letter sent in response to the publisher survey came from a former Kensington author Dana Ransom a.k.a. Nancy Gideon, now published by Avon. Many of the issues discussed in both columns about publishers/mid -list were addressed in this letter, which is excerpted here with the author's permission:

Laurie's News & Views issue 9 has created quite a stir with my former publisher Zebra, who immediately sent e-mails to all its authors asking that we protest loudly. I can't say that I disagree with anything that was printed in Laurie's very insightful and though-provoking article other than to say in defense of Zebra that the sheer volume of its monthly list allowed for a variety of new authors to get their books into readers' hands.

Yes, some of them are not of the sterling quality of, say a Pocket or an Avon. But they give authors, many who develop into our biggest names in romance, a place to learn the craft and to win reader devotion.

Also, editors there are overwhelmed with work and sometimes don't have the chance to polish manuscripts to perfection the way they do at less volume-oriented houses. I've always had wonderful editors at Zebra but always regretted that they didn't have the time to develop my writing to its fullest potential because of their work load.

Perhaps that will change now that Zebra has streamlined its author base. If only the best of the best were published, we'd be short on future reading materials real quick.

Enough said about particular publishers, with the exception of a bit more discussion on those Precious Gems.

Are Those Gems Precious?
Aside from ruffling quite a few feathers at Kensington, the Precious Gems line seems to be of little interest to readers. I did receive some e-mail about them, beginning with this one from Steven Zacharius, president of Kensington:

I didn't particularly care for you comments on our Precious Gem line being marketed like detergent. How about that we are giving authors that may not have ever been published a chance to get their name out? Or that we are giving the avid romance readers that buy 30 books a month a chance to save some money? You could never look at a PG package and say it looks like detergent ... it's a far superior package than any other series romance book on the rack.

While I think the packaging of a book is far less important than what it contains, I will concede that this topic apparently is more important to me than to you. Most of the e-mail I did receive was from authors and would-be authors concerned about the effect this could have on authors.

A very few readers, however, did object that such a highly-touted new line is at the lower-priced, shorter-length end of the genre. Perhaps then, we should examine Sabena's comments. She wrote, "I never buy the cheap $1.98 type books, or the thin Harlequin types. Anything under an inch thick and I won't even look at it."

As a reader who has only read a few category romances, I can say I generally prefer longer books. But I never say never because, of course, there are authors such as Jennifer Crusie out there who manage to write quite wonderful category romances.

Quite a long time ago I requested reader feedback on the subject of book length. I've received just a few responses. Let's try again. Here are some questions to answer:

  • Do you enjoy category romances or do you find them too short?
  • Are you of the belief that category romances are simply a way for beginners to hone their craft?
  • Is there a "perfect" length of romance or does it vary greatly?
  • Do you find romances often padded by pages that either could be removed without damaging the book or that actually hurt the story?
  • Have you read any romances that seemed rushed at the end, as though the author had maxed-out on her contracted word count?

I ask these questions with the eye of a scientist looking for answers. I have my preferences but know that there is always more than one answer to questions regarding romantic fiction. Please respond to any and all of my queries by e-mailing me here.

Here's What I'm Working on Now:
Many of you have already noticed that my mind works a bit differently in that I go from idea to idea and see connections that others don't. Based on those connections, here is a listing of topics I'm working on that could use more input from readers:

  • Silly sex - I'll reveal the excerpted author from Issue 13
  • The size of your TBR pile
  • Ratings - Could there be a connection between "cheer-leader" ratings and the less-than-great releases of lead authors?
  • Lead authors - Can the well run dry?
  • Long-time readers - Are you tougher to please because you have "been there, read that" so many times before?
  • Mid-list crisis
  • How come ... ?
  • Cast your book -- Pick the lead actor/actress for your favorite book (the parts could be filled from Tyrone Power to Johnny Depp, Carole Lombard to Julia Roberts).
  • Which romance first "hooked" you?
  • Other special listing ideas which have been suggested, including:
  • Heroines who don't realize until the end what idiots they have been
  • Lead characters who don't fit the standard of beauty
  • Books where sexual dominance plays a large part (mainstream romance, not erotica, please)
  • Silly sex phrases

As mentioned earlier in this column, special heroines

  • Please e-mail me here if you would like to respond on some or all of these topics. .

    Thanks for Stopping by:
    I've enjoyed "putting down on paper", so to speak, all the issues on my mind. Between my system crash and getting The Archives of Laurie Likes Books off the ground, things have been a bit scattered.

    Past issues of this column, our special title listings, and many other interesting things can be accessed at The Archives of Laurie Likes Books. Please visit and let me know what you think. And be sure to check back here at The Romance Reader in a couple of weeks for my next column.

    As usual, I've run out of room before running out of ideas. So you'll have to check back soon to read up on the mid-list, ratings, glomming, glomming-related syndromes, beauty, etc. If you've missed back issues of this column or are interested in our special listings, visit The Archives of Laurie Likes Books.

    TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
    Laurie Likes Books
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