Laurie's News & Views

December 21, 1996 - Issue #17

Is Anyone Out There?

When I started writing this column last March, I was skeptical that anyone would want to read something I'd written. So I always planned to make Laurie's News & Views a very interactive column. And, until fairly recently, it was.

I've noticed that my e-mail has been coming in very small dribs and drabs lately instead of torrents, and I'm hoping that it's the holiday season and not my writing that is the cause.

If you like what you are reading here and enjoy the participatory nature of the column, please let me know. Come to think of it, if you don't like what you have read here lately, it's probably more crucial that I know about that, so please don't leave me hanging. And if you're bored with me altogether, don't be afraid of letting me know that either. Writing this column takes a huge chunk of time. If no one's interested in reading it, I'll find other things to do instead! So, please e-mail me here and give me some feedback.

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Masturbation Manuals? Give Me a Break!

In my last column, I asked whether or not those authors who are breaking the envelope of what is acceptable sexually in romances may be damaging the genre. Tonyia, was more than a bit perturbed by this question and responded with this e-mail:

"Masturbation Manuals? Give me a break! With all the pressure on now for sex and hero's to run the opposite way of anything even minutely resembling "abuse", what's left to those of us who think of sex as a natural part of the love relationship? I'm so sick of people labeling a little rough lovemaking as "abuse", "downgrading to women", etc. . . I don't want a hero that's mushy and afraid to be a man. And any heroine worth her salt should be able to handle the hero by using her brain.

"Have we become so de-feminized that we look at every move the hero makes with a jaundiced eye? Why can't we let him be a man, and use his brawn or his "prejudiced ideas toward women" to our advantage by creating a heroine that can match him with brainpower? Julie Garwood does this fabulously! There is one fact in life that is indisputable. Men are stronger physically than women. So, let the heroine by inventive, stubborn, smart, quirky. Whatever it takes to handle that He-man. But if we keep labeling every romance novel that has sex in it as "graphic" or "demoralizing", we're not going to have anything left but a story that's unfulfilling and boring. When that day comes, I'll quite reading and writing romance." - Tonyia, still in favor of the bodice-ripper and the damn smart heroine who knew how to tame the lion.

Those of you who are regular readers of my column know that I have a habit of ruffling feathers. Sometimes this is conscious. Other times it is not. In this case, I wanted to spark discussion of a topic that affects a great many readers.

I have another nasty habit - I can talk out of both sides of my mouth, sometimes almost simultaneously. So while I agree with some of what Tonyia says, I also disagree somewhat.

First of all, my raising the question of pushing the envelope, sexually speaking, has, in my mind, less to do with abuse and degradation and more to do with the level and amount of explicit sexuality. The reviews of the latest Thea Devine, Susan Johnston, and Linda Lael Miller's Knights come to mind. In each of these books the love story seemed secondary to the romance as far as our reviewers (including myself) were concerned.

As I've said over and over again, the variety of available romance is a good thing because it satisfies such a large number of readers. I know that there must be a large contingent of readers who enjoy books like this - often they are best-sellers. But most of the readers I've heard from since the inception of this column prefer something in - between the allusion of sex as waves crash onto shorelines and the "in your face" sexuality some authors offer up.

Reader and author Holly sent me this impassioned response this week. I think she makes some important comments; read for yourself and decide:

"I love both reading and writing erotic romances. I have no insecurity about admitting that erotic content is a strong selling factor, and don't know why people waste their breath denying it when any fool can see it's true.

"To me, eroticism is one of the romance author's power tools. As potent as the ability to stir up joy, sadness, and hope is the author's ability to stir up the libido. I will certainly defend anyone's right to unplug their erotic tool (so to speak) if it conflicts with their personal religious or moral beliefs. However, I will not apologize for using every means I have to write a more powerful story. Nor do I think it wrong that many readers do, indeed, use romance novels to enhance masturbation. Sex is an important human need. I hope we've progressed past the days when people believe masturbation would make them grow hair on their palms or go blind!

"In the best of all possible worlds, there will be romances for all tastes: sweet, steamy, erotic - -what have you. And no one will look down on anyone else because the books they like either do or do not contain explicit sexual content. A story will be judged on its merits, all its merits, not just the ones that have to do with sex."

How do you feel about this discussion? Are readers in general agreement with our reviewers on the books mentioned above? What do you think of Holly's remarks? Do you want more or less in the books you read? Do you want me to shut up? Please e-mail me here with your response.

How About a Little Slap & Tickle?

But back to Tonyia's discussion of the labelling of "abusive" and "degrading" when love-making turns a bit "rough". I sometimes think of abuse and degradation when I read books in which the hero engages in infidelity or when the hero attempts to control their heroine sexually. The books of Catherine Coulter, Iris Johansen, and Samantha James are often mentioned in reader mail in this context. But I mostly find abusive those books that leave me feeling degraded as a reader.

For instance, I gave Stella Cameron's Bride 4 hearts and was deeply moved by the contrast she made in the enticing and deliciously written love scenes between the hero and heroine and the vile and violent sex scenes between two of the antagonists. On the other hand, I was unable to finish Stella's latest historical, Beloved, because she included a threesome between the antagonists that I found disturbing. I felt that to continue reading this book would have been voyeuristic. And, I felt degraded as a reader when I read Bertrice Small's Spitfire, which includes a scene where the heroine is involved in a threesome.

When heroes attempt to sexually dominate their heroines, I think a little goes a long way. An example can be found in Anne Stuart's A Rose at Midnight, where the hero taunts the heroine physically and verbally in a sexual interlude. Because of Stuart's skill as an author, story-teller, and writer of tortured characters, I accepted this in the context of the story. However, when the hero in Samantha James' Just Once Kiss did the same, it bothered me a great deal, and I think the reason is that the author employed it as a plot device once too often.

What I've learned from talking to readers is that wonderful love scenes can be filled with adventurous and funky sex - as long as they are written romantically. We want to read about luscious love, but to us, luscious love only occurs between a man and a woman who love each other. Perhaps they haven't realized it yet, but they will. But what we can't accept, and shouldn't have to, are scenes that seem gratuitous or are the only way an author has of conveying the feelings between a man and a woman. Notice I did not say I have a problem with books where love scenes are the only way the hero has of expressing his feelings.

The occasional rough love scene isn't a problem for most of us - if the story is working for us, if we are connecting with the hero and heroine, we can accept this. Some of the books written by the aforementioned Catherine Coulter work for me, others don't. I can accept rough behavior if I've come to care for the characters. Otherwise, I can't. I won't read her medievals anymore for this reason. Yes, she is historically accurate in how women are viewed. But this is not romantic to me.

And there are a host of readers who find infidelity, sexual coercion, threesomes, ben wah balls, etc., unromantic. Obviously I am among them. I know what works best for me. "R"-rated love scenes between characters who love one another/will love one another. If the hero is tortured and needs to work it out with the heroine, I can accept that, as long as every love scene in the book isn't of this variety. But, hey, what works for me may not work for you.

But where I do once again agree with Tonyia is in her description of Julie Garwood's characters. To me, Julie Garwood is a master at creating heroes who are masterful, sexual, stubborn, and most assuredly strong. However, her heroes never demean their heroines, sexually or otherwise. Some might be of the mind that women should be seen and not heard, or of the mind that they are not yet ready for marriage, but I doubt any readers would find her heroes at all abusive.

Do you ever feel degraded by what you read in a romance? What kinds of stuff is too kinky for you and makes you uncomfortable? Have your tastes changed regarding love scenes over the years? Are you more tame or wilder in what you prefer? Please e-mail me here with your comments.

Luscious Love Stories:
I've re-printed our Luscious Love Stories list. I've read several but obviously not all of the books listed below. The ones I contributed to the list are of the mainstream variety. Some titles have scenes of the semi-forced variety, but in general, these are consensual love scenes that certainly get me all hot and bothered!

Lord of Scoundrels, Captive of the Night, and The Lion's Daughter by Loretta Chase
To Love & To Cherish by Patricia Gaffney
Silk & Shadows by Mary Jo Putney
A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson
Longing and Heartless by Mary Balogh
Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale
The Thief's Mistress by Gayle Feyrer
Burning Love by Nan Ryan
Maiden Bride and A Dove at Midnight by Rexanne Becnel
The Conqueror by Brenda Joyce
Saxon Bride and Pagan Bride by Tamara Leigh
Lord of the Wolves and The Viking's Woman by Heather Graham
Whitney, My Love, Kingdom of Dreams, and Something Wonderful by Judith McNaught
Dark Rider, Beloved Scoundrel, The Tiger Prince, Lion's Bride, and Midnight Warrior by Iris Johansen
The Untamed by Kasey Michaels
Green Darkness by Anya Seton
Wolf's Embrace by Gail Link
Shattered Rainbows by Mary Jo Putney
A Gentle Feuding and Heart's Aflame by Johanna Lindsey
The Tiger Lily, Midnight Masquerade, While Passion Sleeps, and Gypsy Lady by Shirlee Busbee
Ashes in the Wind, The Wolf & the Dove, and The Flower & The Flame by Kathleen Woodiwiss
Fair is the Rose by Meagan McKinney
A Fire in the Heart by Katherine Sutcliffe
When the Splendor Falls by Laurie McBain
Enchanted and Only His by Elizabeth Lowell
After the Night, Dream Man, and Midnight Rainbow by Linda Howard
One Summer by Karen Robards
Knight of a Trillion Stars by Dara Joy
Exposure by Susan Andersen
Lost in my Dreams by Faye Ashley
Slow Heat in Heaven and Charade by Sandra Brown
Taboo by Olivia Rupprecht
Sweet Liar and The Invitation (specifically, the short story Matchmakers) by Jude Deveraux
Love's Charade, Silver Nights, Smuggler's Lady, Beloved Enemy, and The Eagle & the Dove by Claudia Bishop aka Jane Feather
Rebellious Desire, Lion's Lady, Guardian Angel, The Gift, Castles, Saving Grace, The Secret, The Prize, and The Bride by Julie Garwood
Night Storm, the Magic trilogy, Rosehaven, and The Sherbrooke Bride by Catherine Coulter
Bride by Stella Cameron
Bewitching by Jill Barnett
Basket of Wishes by Rebecca Paisley
The Vicar's Daughter and The Devil Earl by Deborah Simmons
Splendid by Julia Quinn
Irresistible by Catherine Hart
Rebellious Bride by Donna Fletcher
Princess Annie and Forever & the Night by Linda Lael Miller
His Lady's Ransom by Merline Lovelace
Rendezvous and Scandal by Amanda Quick
The Scoundrel by Debra Dier
Blaze by Susan Johnson
Hidden Riches by Nora Roberts
Tell me no Lies by Ann Maxwell aka Elizabeth Lowell
Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi

While I'd love to have your contributions to add to this list, I'd also like to know if you have strong feelings for or against any of the titles listed. Please e-mail me here with your comments about titles on this list or to add a title.

Getting Back to Julie:

Yes, her heroines are smart and strong enough to use their brains and their wonderful selves to earn the respect and love of their heroes. I most assuredly enjoy Julie's style of writing, because of her humor and because the conflicts in her work fall outside of the hero/heroine relationship and are what brings them together.

That's what I found so enjoyable about Jane Ashford's recent release, The Marriage Wager. But what I enjoyed about this book as well was that it featured a heroine who wasn't a mere babe in the woods. She was a widow. Frankly I have noticed several historicals lately featuring widows or heroines who are aren't nubile teens. While I appreciate this as a trend, I wonder if we are now entering a new cycle in the industry wherein for the next two years, too many books will feature 30-ish widows.

I would like to start a special listing of romances where the conflict is outside the hero/heroine's relationship. We could broaden this category to include romances where friendships are important, and not just between the hero and heroine. For instance, I would include The Marriage Wager on this list because the hero and heroine genuinely like one another, but I would also include Julie Garwood's The Secret because of the friendship between the heroine and her best friend.

Please e-mail me here if you would be interested in such a special listing and/or to contribute titles.

Jump on the Bandwagon:

Among the many topics addressed in e-mails I receive are those about over-used plot devices. We've addressed many in this column before, but haven't talked about why this occurs. We need look no farther than the TV Guide or the movie listings in your local newspaper to determine that the entertainment industry loves the bandwagon.

Remember when Seinfeld was the hot new show a few years ago? How many Seinfeld clones were there the next year? And, how many of them were actually any good? The same can be said of the show Friends, which debuted two years ago, and all the clones that followed. If you're not a big television viewer, think about Rocky I - Rocky V; I can't remember if there was a Rocky VI.

We'll see Bruce Willis chasing after terrorists in $100,000,000 productions year after year after year but only occasionally will we see a movie like Emma or Cold Comfort Farm.

With the bottom line the only line that counts in big business then, it's no wonder that we are reading so many time-travels after the success of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. Only a few might be as good, but we're still going through that cycle, just as we're still going through the baby cycle. Readers responded to Diana's work because it was well-written, not because it fit a formula.

Eventually the publishers will realize those plots aren't selling as well and we'll move on to something else, like the widowed, older heroine in historicals. Again, the variety available allows everyone to find something to love, but are the publishers pushing the limits?

What's in a Name?
Are publishers pushing the limits in another way as well? By marketing too many books as romances that really aren't? I recently asked readers if they preferred a narrow or broad definition of romance. Will it surprise you to discover there isn't a definitive answer? I'm in a minority on this one, but there were many readers who agreed with my view that I like to know what I'm getting when I pick up a book. More readers, however, wanted more inclusive labels of what constitutes a romance.

One author told me that the issue of how to categorize books has been a hot topic of discussion at every conference she'd ever attended. She added, "It's almost an unsolvable problem. Once upon a time publishers knew their markets and knew how to reach them. Now that they've mushroomed into huge industries instead of personal businesses, they know next to nothing about what's happening in the real world, so they guess. Someone tells them romance is selling, so suddenly everything is labelled romance. If mysteries are the hotsellers this week, then anything with the smallest thread of mystery is labelled accordingly."

Those readers who agreed with my view that labeling should be narrow were rather upset about it. Reader Erin felt mislead by our review of Kathleen Eagle's Sunrise Song, which she bought based on our recommendation. She said, "I didn't think this book should have been allowed to have been listed as a romance, and I think you should remove it from your review list."

Erin's point was brought home recently when I read Denise Domning's latest book, which was essentially an historical novel. Reviewer Susan Scribner faced a similar situation after she read Emilie Richards' latest. Do we rate the books as books or do we rate them as romances? Both Susan and I had enough problems with our respective books that neither received very good reviews, but the issue is sure to arise again.

Reader Amanda commented that, "As for genre labels, the more specific, the better. More information is always better than less. I don't mind if some cross-over wants to add the word "romantic" to the label, as long as there's a convention. (i.e. romantic suspense vs. suspenseful romance) It sounds a little awkward put that way, and I know they aren't doing it now, but it shouldn't be too hard to come up with something."

I doubt publishers will accommodate readers like Amanda, Erin, and myself, especially since we were in the minority. For every reader like Tiffany who wrote, "I bought The Cove and had it been billed as plain suspense, I might've been kinder in my reading of it. Instead, I spent the entire book going: Where's the romance?? I hate this!", I received two or three comments like Elaine's:

I think romance is a big enough category with enough variety in its audience to handle many different styles and sub-genres. If we get too narrow in our definition of what is and what isn't a romance we could sentence ourselves to reading the same book over and over again.

Most readers agreed with Yolanda's assessment that, "the label of romance can be broadly defined. It has to meet the general criteria of ending on the note of and they lived happily ever after, though. When I pick up a romance novel, I want the plot lines to conclude satisfactorily and not have it end in tragedy, horror or other negative emotions. How the author gets there can vary -- I enjoy mystery romances, historical romances, tear jerkers, crime solving, etc, but the one constant has to be that all important ending."

Reader Elaine, who studies romance in an academic setting with her students at Cornell University, analyzed more than a hundred historical romances this summer. Their conclusions?

"We couldn't help but observe that the historical romance label is being applied to books that are more accurately described as historical fiction with strong romantic plots. The Western and frontier novels are somewhat more likely to strike us as historical fiction, even historical epics.

"You asked as well what we think about this. It does not bother us. These genre-stretching books were among our favorites (although there were plenty of conventional romances on our 'keepers' list too). We have a number of explanations for why the genre-stretchers were 'favorites':

  • We read a lot of books in a very short period of time, and the 'novel' ones appealed to us more
  • The genre-stretchers are more like the books we read before we started this project -- best sellers and suspense novels
  • All that fascinating historical detail mesmerized us academics
  • The heroes and heroines tended to be more complicated people, and because of the complexity of the novels' plots and the lengths of time the action spanned the novels focused on psychological growth and change.

"More speculatively, we wondered if the genre-stretching is increasing the potential audience for these novels. I started reading romance novels 3 years ago when I discovered just by happenstance that many of the romances were enjoyable historical novels in periods I enjoyed reading about."

I Was Really Excited. . . And Then I Read It:

Another topic that I hear about over and over again has to do with the genre's biggest authors and how some of them haven't written very many good books recently. I hear this in reference to Judith McNaught, Johanna Lindsey, Julie Garwood, Catherine Coulter, Jude Deveraux, Virginia Henley (whose upcoming release, btw, will be in hardcover), you name it - I hear about it.

A while back, when gathering reader input for a column on ratings, I received a unsettling e-mail from a reader named Rebecca. She commented that, "some of my favorite authors seem to have slipped. I think part of the reason for this is that writers build a following among readers and then coast on name recognition. Perhaps, if readers and reviewers pointed out problems with books, then authors would know that they can not simply turn out book after book with the same plot and basic characters."

A couple of other readers ventured similar thoughts, and I too have pondered that after being disappointed by the most recent books of favorite authors such as Anne Stuart, Catherine Coulter, and Johanna Lindsey. Most readers and booksellers I talk to agree that most of the big authors have produced major clunkers in recent years. Many readers think certain authors have completely used up their talent and haven't written well for quite awhile.

Could it be that a lack of honest criticism contributes to less-than-stellar efforts? Could it also be that some authors are asked to write too much in too short a time-frame? That could explain some of it, but it doesn't explain Judith McNaught's latest - she had years to complete Remember When. As I heard in a bookstore today, "The last four chapters were vintage McNaught, but the rest was so disappointing."

What do you think is going on with these authors who once thrilled us? I haven't written any of them off yet, but many of you have. Included in the ballot on my archives site is a category for author you gave up on; is your entry an old favorite? If you haven't filled out the ballot, please do (a link is provided below).

If you have a theory on why some of your old favorites have run out of magic, please e-mail me here. Conversely, if you disagree about any of the authors I've listed above, please respond as well.

It's a Wrap!

As you know from reading our home page, The Romance Reader is going on hiatus for a couple of weeks. For those of you readers who absolutely need a fix from us, please visit The Archives of Laurie Likes Books - this hiatus is the perfect time to fill out a ballot for the unofficial Romance Reader awards.

It's also the perfect time to help me start a new feature for The Archives; book reviews for one of your all-time favorites.

Finally, what I have said about input from readers for this column also goes for The Archives. I have been receiving titles for inclusion on our special title listings, but not for other interactive areas.

Have a great holiday season, and see you back here next year!

 

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

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