Laurie's News & Views
August 15, 1997 - Issue #31
I Have Good News & Bad News:
The good news is that some new writing for pay opportunities have presented themselves to me and I'm acting upon them. The bad news is that because of editorial differences, I will no longer be writing for The Romance Reader, although I will continue to do write my column and publish it at The Archives of Laurie Likes Books. Click here for my reason for leaving TRR.
Speaking of Reviews:
Uh oh, I did it again. I loved a book that seems to be very controversial (big surprise!). And, for the most part, the very reason I loved the book is the one that caused most others I've heard from to put it down and cringe in horror.
I said in my review of Christina Dodd's A Well Pleasured Lady that the love scenes (and one in particular) may be deemed by some as politically incorrect. There is a scene of forced seduction, or as some readers have informed me, rape.
I've come down in this column as a reader who does not appreciate rape scenes in romance, whether between hero and heroine, hero and someone else, or other characters altogether. I've also indicated that many books featuring the hero sexually dominating the heroine have been bothersome to me. Nancy Richards-Akers' The Heart and the Holly featured a near-rape scene that was one of the reasons I disliked that book, and Catherine Coulter, Iris Johansen and Samantha James (although she's since improved in this arena) have written books where the hero used sexual coercion to keep the heroine in line.
There have been other books, however, where the behavior toward the heroine by the hero has been forceful and I have loved those books. Catherine Coulter and Anne Stuart have each written books earning a 5-heart rating from me that fall into this category. And, recently I re-read Johanna Lindsey's Prisoner of My Desire and I am seriously contemplating changing my rating of that book from 4 hearts to 5. (That would be a first for me. Has anyone else done that? If so, please let me know by emailing me.)
The Lindsey book is a medieval and tells of the love between a knight and a lady. The knight is kidnapped by the lady's half-brother in order to service the lady so that she will have an heir. She is a virgin and he is not willing. When he escapes, he turns the tables on her. He kidnaps her and forces her to do, one by one, the things she was forced to have him do.
When I first read this book, I enjoyed it fairly well, but was put off by all the forced seduction. I liked the last section of the book well enough that when a reader wrote in praising the book highly, I decided to re-read it. It really worked for me this time around.
Shortly thereafter I was assigned the Dodd book. A Well Pleasured Lady features a heroine utterly closed off from her emotions - she's closeted them deep inside herself because she felt that when they were let loose, they destroyed her life and that of her brother. They haven't come out in ten years, until she meets the hero. Between chemistry and hormones, the cement she's used to keep that closet shut has cracked and she's starting to feel.
By the time we've arrived at the scene in question, these two have already shared some intimate and violent moments. He's not ready to accept that she's not as evil as her family, and she is incapable of dealing with her feelings for him. And so it starts. . . that in an apparent jealous rage, he forces her to be intimate. There is a jealous rage in the Richards-Akers book that turned me off, so what is different here?
Christina Dodd very skillfully created a backdrop for these two characters that I found utterly believable. It is only through her sexual feelings for him that the heroine's emotions seemingly exist at all, and the hero knows this. Though he begins his seduction out of seeming jealousy, I think he knows it is the only way he's ever going to get through to her, which has become desperately important to him. In fact, I don't think the author could have written another way for Mary to open to Sebastian other than this way.
For that reason, this scene of forced seduction, which I don't consider rape, worked incredibly well for me. I found it to be one of the most erotic love scenes I'd ever read. During this scene Sebastian tells Mary, "Your tears are gold to me" and worth more than her maidenhead. This line, in particular, turned off some readers. When I read that line, and this one, "Suffering. Joy. Passion. I don't care what emotion you show, as long as you show them to me.", they affected me in a different way. They made sense. They made me cry. Something finally got through to Mary.
I understood Sebastian's need for Mary to open to him and I believe the manner in which he did so, while certainly forceful, was not rape. I love that scene and love the book, and knew that the politically incorrect nature of their love scene would be difficult for some readers.
One of the discussions to come out of this book has been about the difference between rape and forced seduction. A reader asked whether, because Sebastian brings Mary to orgasm, that is what made it a forced seduction and not a rape for me.
I've talked with several readers about this, and thought about it myself. It's important to keep in mind what is acceptable in a fictional work is not the same as what is acceptable in real life, but my belief is that a woman being raped does not reach orgasm. Reader Margie's response was:
"I could not be turned on and become a willing participant unless I wanted him in the first place. (I can't comment on the particular Dodd book in question, not having read it yet, but to me, if a woman "suddenly" becomes willing, gets turned on and has an orgasm, then she wanted the man all along. She may not have shown it; in fact, she may really have believed that she didn't want him to touch her ever. But if she starts enjoying it, then it was just a facade; i.e., a lie she was telling herself.)
"On the other hand, if I did not want anything to do with the guy, no amount of foreplay, sweet nothings and whatever else could get me turned on, much less get me participating. I'd scream bloody murder and probably throw up at the same time.
"Taking the two examples, the first would be a forced seduction, the second a rape. Of course, the first instance wants an explanation of how the man knew in the first place that the woman wanted him. There is a thin line there, but one that seems easier to accept being crossed in fiction than in real life, where a "no" is a "no" and where no man has the right to psychoanalyze a woman's feelings and decide for her that she wants it.
"In fiction, particularly historicals, it's always seems clearer to me when something is a forced seduction versus a rape; I can continue reading a book with the seduction, but I won't read a rape scene and the book gets dumped."
For Ita, who originally posed the question of forced seduction versus rape, the issue is when the heroine becomes a willing participant - before or after penetration. Her issue with the Dodd book is that the heroine does not verbally comply with the hero's actions until after penetration. The fact that he's got her all hot and bothered by this point is not the point for Ita, who wrote, "Would you please tell me how you define forced seduction. I hate to be a
picky-butt but this term really bothers me. My definition and yours obviously are different. My definition: to turn on a person using force
and get them so turned on they willingly participate in sexual intercourse. S/he consents before penetration."
Without turning this into a political discussion about whether scenes like this muddy the issues woman have been trying to dispense with for years about "no" meaning "no", I need to repeat that what is acceptable in fiction is not the same as what is acceptable in real life. To me, in real life, "no" is always "no" - no if's, and's, or but's. To me, in real life there is no such thing as forced seduction. But in a romance, well, I'm changing my notions and want to hear from you. Please e-mail me. You don't need to have read A Well Pleasured Lady; many of the readers I've talked to on this topic haven't either, but they do have something to say on forced seduction, whether there is such a thing (in fiction), and on rape.
For reader Karen, "There is definitely a grey area between seduction and rape, and a lot of
controversy over it! I don't like forced seductions, but then, I'm not a big fan of strongly alpha heroes, either. One that was fought over was Wicked at Heart by Danelle Harmon. The hero doesn't actually go all the
way, but it comes close. And one minute the supposedly strong heroine is fighting him and screaming "No", and the next minute she's overwhelmed with passion. I actually thought the hero wasn't so bad, but I lost all respect
and interest in the heroine. She seemed to lose her brains whenever she got near a man.
"I can understand that rape was part of history, and I don't mind reading about a heroine who has to deal with it, but not a heroine who is so beaten down that she accepts rape as the only kind of affection she's going to get. It may be accurate, but not something I want to read about."
According to Ann, "Rape is a ugly, violent crime and the key word is violent. It is not a
crime of sex per se but a crime of power using violence and sex to gain that power. No rapist is going to see to his victim's pleasure. (A good
example of a rape scene in romantic fiction would be in Mary Jo Putney's book Dearly Beloved where Gervase takes out his frustration, anger and his feeling of being powerless to control his own fate by forcibly and
violently claiming his marital rights).
"Date rape, spousal rape, or rape by a stranger, it is a form of violence used to produce fear and terror in its victim. While today we might train
our sons to accept "no" as an end to sexual advances, it is a fairly recently accepted concept that a man who does not abide by a woman's "no" becomes a rapist. It's a wonderful concept and one I hope pervades our society for years to come but one that had no place historically before the 1960's.
"Rape to me will always be fists in the face, a bruised cheek, a black eye and being dragged by the hair across the room until you submit only because you are physically afraid and in fear for your immediate future. Been there, done that, divorced him and it's not what I read in Dodd's book."
Again, I'd like to hear from you on this issue - please email me.
Rape, of course, is not the only arena of political correctness (or not) in romances. I've touched on this before in at least one other review, and in my interview last year with Danelle Harmon. Recently I heard from TRR reviewer Lesley Dunlap, who had read a book she found to be politically incorrect in an offensive manner. Earlier this year she and I had discussed a book that was equally annoying to her because it was politically correct by today's standards and thereby totally anachronistic. I asked her to elaborate on her views, and say, "Welcome to the Talking out of both sides of your mouth club. You are in excellent company!" Here's what Lesley had to say:
"I don't want much in romance except a great hero, a great heroine, a
terrific story, genuine emotions, and factual correctness. (OK, maybe I do want a lot.) I want basically decent characters interacting in morally acceptable ways. I would dispute the premise that a romance must be
politically correct to achieve this goal.
So let's talk about political correctness and anachronisms. We've all read books set in other times and places where the actions taken by characters are not true to their times. While I believe we can accept some leniency here, how much is too much? And, are there books out there you have read like Lesley mentioned that are so politically incorrect they are offensive? Please e-mail me with your response.
"By factual correctness, I'm not talking about the kind of errors that pop up in romances occasionally such as Strauss waltzes in Regency English ballrooms or articles of clothing that are from the wrong century or (my
all-time favorite) the Oregon sunrise over the Pacific. I expect the author and the editor to be savvy enough to catch those. I'm talking about
refraining from placing twentieth century attitudes into historical situations; I'm talking about being truthful about normal human reactions.
"A southern heroine should not be running a school for all the "servant" children. The
hero should not simultaneously be a titled aristocrat, a dashing military officer, and a successful businessman. The virginal heroine should not dissolve into an earth-shaking orgasm after the hero pulls her off her
horse, throws her to the ground, and jumps her bones. The hero should not be forbidden from having had an enjoyable sexual encounter before bedding the heroine.
"Yes, of course, the heroine should be a model of compassion, the hero should be able to accomplish any goal he sets, and sex between the two of them should be magnificent. (Or something along those lines.) But don't
stomp my willing suspension of disbelief into the ground. Blind adherence to a politically correct agenda can lead to exactly that result.
"Recently I read and reviewed Kasey Michael's The Promise, which was purportedly set in eighteenth century Pennsylvania. I say "purportedly set" because this is eighteenth century Pennsylvania as interpreted by Disney World. In this eighteenth century Pennsylvania, a half-breed Indian/white can be the perfect model of an English aristocrat, a black
slave can be the love interest of a gently raised maiden, an alcoholic Indian can be a spiritual advisor, European aristocrats abound, all ethnic
groups are cutesy charming, and everybody is palsy-walsy with everybody else regardless of social or economic status except for the snobbish villain. This goes beyond revisionist history - this is outright fantasy.
"It would be nice to believe that slavery and discrimination didn't exist at that time, but that would be a lie. It would be nice to believe that
discriminatory attitudes do not and have never existed in America, but we all know better. When you give me an historical, give me history and make it correct. Not political correctness - historical correctness.
"In Diana Gabaldon's Drums of August there is a scene where the heroine Claire, dressed for a party, is observed by the slave of her blind hostess coming down a staircase. The slave exhibits his admiration for her
appearance (he's allowed himself to reveal his emotions because his owner can't see them), and Claire, who's from the twentieth century, appreciates his admiration. They suddenly realize how improper they've both been.
This is a far more realistic scene than any in The Promise. Fiction doesn't dictate ignoring the facts of the past; good fiction acknowledges the reality of the past and has characters that deal appropriately with it.
"I recognize that discrimination has and does exist. James Clavell's Shogun presents the discriminatory attitudes that Westerners have towards the Japanese and vice versa. In one of Meghan McKinney's novels, the hero's sister is snubbed by New York society because of their Irish origins. Good. Discrimination exists. Get it out. Deal with it.
"But when there is a general discriminatory overtone to a book that goes unchallenged, I am offended. It's not the lack of political correctness that offends me; it's the lack of human compassion, it's the ugliness of
human hatred. I read just such a book recently. Any pretense to literary quality that By Candlelight by Janelle Taylor might have (which isn't much under any circumstances) is spoiled by what I perceived as anti-Semetic overtones of
"In this book, the heroine from the wrong side of the tracks has a mock church wedding with the hero from the right side of the tracks and
winds up pregnant. The hero's parents lie to her about his being engaged to another girl, and she obligingly goes away. (Don't ask me why these
heroines never sock the bum with a drain-the-family-fortune paternity
suit.) She takes a low-paying job where she attracts her boss's attention. The boss, who has a Jewish name, marries her in a civil (got that?)
ceremony to give her child a father. He asks that she not reveal that the child isn't his. (This is unreasonable?) Sixteen years later hubby is
dead leaving her the family business in debt. (Imagine, taking out a business loan!) Guess who shows up six months after the funeral?. .
"In my opinion, this book had an anti-Semetic tone - neither the heroine nor her daughter after sixteen years seem to have much residual affection for this man who was
both husband and father. The heroine is wholly focused on the long-absent lover boy. . . It's not only what they say or do that led me to sense this tone; it's also what they don't say or do. They don't say that hubby
was such a great guy and that lover boy has big shoes to fill. They don't say that their lives have been diminished by hubby's absence. They don't reminisce about the wonderful times they had when hubby/daddy was alive. Sixteen years don't mean much. Long-gone lover boy, however, is one real hunk. How could any red-blooded American woman resist?
"Well, I could. Give me the mature, responsible, hard-working, faithful husband. The heroine can have the shallow, uncommitted, ever-check-back
hero. (His mock marriage lasted only one night; his first legal marriage lasted only six months.) Give me a hero that I can count on to last the
distance. Sixteen years sounds about right.
"The religious innuendoes were unnecessary to the plot. If it was the author's intention to imply that lover boy was the heroine's real soulmate
in the cosmos, it didn't work. . . Usually romance novels try to avoid any mention of religion to avoid offending readers although religion has been a principal theme in some. (Examples are Mary Jo Putney's Thunder & Roses and Patricia Gaffney's To Love and To Cherish.) Authors who are not capable of handling religion without offending their readers would be advised to avoid it whatsoever. This isn't political correctness; this is common courtesy."
I spent the other morning in a most frustrating fashion - trying to get comments from various media outlets who reported on the Nora Roberts/Janet Dailey story in a manner most of us found biased against the genre. Couldn't the story have been reported simply as straight news? Did we really need the titillating titles and leads, and comments about all romances being alike?
Here's what happened - a reporter who had written one of the stories containing offensive snippets protested his innocence: "They changed my story in editing!" he exclaimed. While that let's him off the hook, it doesn't let his editors off the hook, who, by the way, refused to discuss the handling of the story.
The editors of one of the other stories refused discussion as well, leading me to believe that the bias against the genre is pervasively institutional. In other words, it is a given. I did actually have a conversation about one of the stories I read with the actual writer, commentator Gil Gross of CBS news, who did a humorous commentary piece he felt was both a gentle slam on the genre but was really coming down against Janet Dailey and her stating her plagiarism was unconscious.
I asked Mr. Gross the same thing I asked those reporters and editors referred to above the following: Would they have put a negatively humorous spin on plagiarism if it involved John Grisham and Scott Turow?
His answer was that he does not do straight news, and that, of course, he would have put a similarly funny spin had the writers involved written legal suspense or horror or sci-fi. His point? Neither Nora Roberts, Tom Clancy, or John Grisham writes literature which will be remembered in a hundred years or so.
He recalled being a newsman in Chicago when George Harrison's My Sweet Lord was released, and how he and his cohorts gleefully ran to the stacks to play (over and over), an older and quite similarly sounding song which George Harrison was later found guilty of plagiarizing.
Of the overall tone of his commentary, he said he's "glad people care enough about something to be offended" and, of the purpose of commentary, "if you do it and never offend people, what are you doing?"
Gil Gross came across as a funny gadfly - an equal opportunity offender who took some digs about books "of unrealistic people, by unrealistic people, and for unrealistic people". His entire commentary was a rif on the Gettysburg Address to illustrate his contention that anyone who plagiarizes fully well knows what he (or she) is doing.
While I think Mr. Gross more than gently slammed the genre, I suppose he had a point about using humor to get people to tune into a serious issue such as plagiarism. However, I think he was far from successful in how his article has been interpreted. It read less to me an indictment of Janet Dailey's actions than a put-down of romantic fiction.
(To read Gil Gross' response to reading this column, please click here.)
So, where are we now? How to face institutional bias on something that is important, but, in terms of issues of institutional bias that are more important, not to blow it up and make it bigger than it is?
I mean, let's face it - dissing romance is not exactly up there with sexual harassment or racial bigotry, so to respond with extreme vehemence is likely to backfire and make it appear as though we are nothing but a bunch of strident and shrill females. On the other hand, after my trying to interview news editors, I've come to the conclusion that they must not believe romances are any more than comic books. Why? Because only dolts read comic books and surely don't read newspapers or news magazines. If we are dolts than it's okay to offend us because we aren't reading their stories.
Part of me wants to say to all of us, "There is no way in hell we will change the minds of these people and the next time a story comes up involving romantic fiction, let's just ignore it." But then I remember that the reason many romance readers are in the closet is because we are made to feel embarrassed by stories such as these and we will continue to feel embarrassed until stories such as these stop.
I believe since this is an institutional problem that it must be resolved at an institutional level. Instead of individuals writing and calling the media, individuals and authors must go to publishers and require one institution to work with another institution.
It is the lead authors who I believe can do most to affect change, and I hope some are reading this. Publishers can try to get their lead authors booked on important talk shows, radio shows, and interviewed by the print media. Lead authors can pave the way for mid-list authors by asking that the emphasis on covers and cover models be phased out (after all, covers for lead authors aren't clinches, so why not class up all covers?)
Readers too can write well-reasoned letters to publishers asking why they see John Clancy on Good Morning America but not Nora Roberts. Readers can go to the publishers and complain about covers that embarrass them and ask for covers that don't scream out from across the room.
Let me know what you think by emailing me.
What a Transition!
I mentioned last time that I had received a letter from a long-time reader of this column, one who often disagrees with me about authors, books, and concepts. Following all our discussion here about the HEA ending, she wrote me again, and I think some of her comments are particularly pertinent given the discussion of bias.
"I have read your two columns (Issue #27 and Issue #28) stemming in part from my comments about happy-ever-after endings. But Laurie, I have never doubted for a moment that the average romance reader wants a happy ending. What I was questioning was whether what most readers want should be the same as a definition of the literary form.
"You know, there are a lot of science-fiction fans who like to argue that Ray Bradbury is not a science-fiction writer because of his negative view of many aspects of modern technology and because of his lack of extensive scientific background details in his novels. They like to say he is a fantasy writer but not a science-fiction writer. (BTW, Bradbury himself has said he doesn't care about the argument; he thinks of himself as an 'idea writer.') But, really, I think this is a lot of nonsense. In Ray Bradbury, we're talking about a man who got his start writing for sci-fi pulp magazines and who comes to most non-sci-fi fans' minds when they hear the phrase 'science fiction.' Saying he is not a science fiction writer is like someone saying Louis Armstrong didn't play jazz. The fact is, those I-love-modern-technology sci-fi fans are trying to force their sci-fi preferences onto a definition of the genre - just as some of your pro-happy-ending romance readers seem to be doing to the romance genre.
"I'll stick with my definition: 'A romance is a work in which the plot centers around a love relationship.' You and most other readers of paperback genre romances may only like romances with happy endings, but you shouldn't force your preference onto a definition of the form. Because, by removing tragic romances like Romeo & Juliet from your definition, in my opinion you are doing a disservice to romances as a respectable literary form - something I care deeply about.
"Several of your letter writers have expressed the view that what today is called 'genre fiction' (a new term for 'pulp fiction') is escapist fiction with happy, or at least tidy, reader-pleasing, endings. Well, first of all, I don't see how you can separate techno-thrillers and spy novels from genre/escapist fiction - and in those books the endings are often messy. But, in addition, happy endings are frequently absent in science fiction; and westerns (though I know less about the genre) don't always have them either. So that leaves us with one other genre, mysteries, in which you point out that the mystery is usually solved. Well, that may be true, but in one of the most famous British mysteries of all time, The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, the detective's solution to an actual historical mystery must remain merely a theory (albeit one bought by the Plantagenet society). And this book is hugely popular with British mystery fans. They don't complain about the failure to give a complete solution, and they don't suggest that the book is not a mystery.
"I'm not being critical of your romance definition just for the sake of argument, or to get the female equivalent of my rocks off. I just feel very strongly about the viability of romance as a literary form capable of greatness. And while I have seen most forms of genre fiction (especially science fiction and mysteries) becoming increasingly 'respectable' in the past few decades, romance has gone in the other direction. (Mary Stewart and Daphne Du Maurier and Victoria Holt and Georgette Heyer were a lot more 'respectable' than romance writers today.) And, like many of the characters in that delightful book The Boyfriend School, I think the failure to give romances their due is in part a form of sexism. But the solution does not rest with outsiders, including the literary critics: It's really up to publishers and readers to allow romance writers to break out of the mold once in a while and not force the genre to be forever boxed in to a corner. Any romance reader has the right to have specific demands regarding what kind of romance she or he likes, but if romance readers (and publishers and organizations) refuse to be more broadminded about what a romance is, then they have only themselves to blame when outsiders poke fun at their reading tastes.
"Because there is one literary form whose definition does require a happy ending: It is called a fairy tale."
Laurie's Picks & Pans:
- A Well Pleasured Lady by Christina Dodd - a pick
- The Bargain by Jane Ashford - a pick
- Expectant Father by Leanne Banks - (from 1996) a pick
- House of the Four Seasons by Abigail McDaniels (from 1995) - a pan
Time to Vote:
One of the things Gil Gross got a kick out of was when I told him about the Silly Sex snippets I regularly run here and about the Purple Prose Parody page I've set up. It's time to stop taking entries for purposes of voting (anyone who wants to can still submit an entry and I'll post it) and call for a vote. Please link here (there is a link to return you to this column), make your vote, and I will announce a winner shortly.
It's a Wrap!
I'll be getting on the new thrice-monthly schedule beginning in September and hope to have new columns up on the 1st, 10th, and 20th of each month.
As always, I look forward to hearing from you on any and all topics and hope you enjoyed this column as well as this site. Feel free to write about anything you read by me in this column or at this site by emailing me.
TTFN, Laurie Likes Books
||Gil Gross' response to this column
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After sending the original version of this column in to TRR's editor/publisher, I was informed that it would not be published unless I removed the segment on Political Correctness as it related to Lesley Dunlap's discussion of By Candlelight. Because Dunlap's thoughts on Taylor's book were simply an expression of her opinion, I believed they were valid and useful and refused to remove them and then resigned on the basis of "editorial differences."