Issue #35 (October 1, 1997)

Tortured Heroes:
I mentioned last time I'd be discussing tortured heroes in this column. I've heard from many of you about this type of hero. Some of you are like me - you go back and forth on this kind of archetype. Others adore the tortured hero. Still others want to shake him and yell, "Get over yourself!"

I must admit I was in that last category until a couple of months ago, when I finished some romances with wonderfully tortured heroes. They caused me to reflect upon my all-time favorite romances (a listing of these can be found by clicking here). Of my 35 Desert Isle Keepers, less than one-fourth qualify as truly tortured, and even then, my penchant for lighter romances is apparent. They are as follows:

While 25% doesn't seem like much, you've got to remember that my ratings are skewed somewhat as another 25% involve Julie Garwood romances, and her heroes are of the gamma variety. The other 50%? A combination of semi-tortured heroes and gamma heroes. When I move out of five-heart range and into four-heart range, there are many more tortured heroes to be found. In fact, the vast majority of books I've rated four hearts (approximately 100 between 4+ and 4-), star tortured heroes.

What really knocks me off tortured heroes for months at a time, however, are badly written ones, especially when they are involved in "I hate you, let's go to bed" romances. After having recently read some wonderfully written tortured heroes, however, I'm back on his side, at least for the time being.

As for readers, here's some of what you've written me:

According to Rebecca, she is annoyed when it takes a tortured hero the whole book to get over himself. She sees these heroes as "way too self-involved. At least tortured heroines can function in the world around them and care about people to a large extent." She prefers a hero with "a sense of joy of live, and a sense of humor. . . I don't mind if he is an Alpha male who is bossy and argumentative, or a beta male who is nurturing, but a tortured hero is a character who will make me put a book down faster than a hot potato."

Andrea is a reader who wrote me long ago that the combination of tortured hero and tormented heroine overwhelms her. She can handle tortured heroes if they have had horrible life experiences but are able to get on with their lives. She gives as an example the hero from Chase the Dawn by Jane Feather (hey, she always gives examples by Jane Feather, but that's quite okay!) Andrea writes, "He is of the Irish gentry who was involved in actions against the crown. He was caught and transported to the American colonies as an indentured servant and was treated very badly by his master and escaped. When the book opens he is involved in patriot activities during the American Revolution and ends up getting saddled with the daughter of a Tory. His experiences are a driving force in his life but he is still able to love and cherish the daughter of a Tory."

Cheryl likes variety in her romance reading, preferring a mixture of tortured heroes and those who aren't as well. She says it depends on the skill of the author. I couldn't agree more. It seems that authors of lesser skill often rely on a very hard touch with nary a nuance to be found while more talented authors give glimpses of humanity and the less dark side as well. Cheryl thinks it's very romantic for a woman to be strong "enough to help the hero try to come to grips with his past and help him move forward. In a sense, the heroine has many roles: wife, lover and counselor!" Cheryl, ironically, is currently getting her master's in psychology.

Marion has a love-hate relationship with tortured heroes. She can't help but imagine herself as the lead characters she reads about, which creates problems when she reads of overly-tortured heroes. She found she could not accept the heroes in Elizabeth Lowell's medieval trilogy because "the heroes were so tortured in the sense that they let personal enmity, pride, and misunderstanding get to them that they abuse the heroines both verbally and sometimes physically." While I agree that such heroes are not generally acceptable to me, I disagree about the heroes in this series, which I found wonderful, especially since the heroines were so wonderfully written - the ending of Untamed, for instance, is one of the most touching I've ever read.

Marion and I disagree about this series, and this book in particular. Again, while I find myself agreeing in general that "these heroes are, in a word, stupid", and that "any man who couldn't express their feelings to the woman he love until she is at the brink of dying at the last two chapter is to me, unworthy of anything but self-inflicted misery", and that, "the heroine is just masochistic and unsympathetic to put up with the idiot", I disagree about this being the case in Untamed. The fact that, in the end, the hero and heroine nearly gave their lives for one another proved to me that their love would survive.

Where Marion and I are in agreement concerns books where the heroes deconstruct at the end, "groveling and begging the heroine's forgiveness and promising never to be overly macho again." We also agree about the hero who retains a modicum of "rational thought and respect for the heroine. And yes, at the end he kneels before her, tears in eyes, whimpering for her not to leave him. And she graciously allows him to retain his pride by agreeing and forgiving." Such is the power of woman.

Wendy takes a stronger stance than Marion. She says she hates tortured heroes, but of the bitter variety. She wrote, "Give me a hero who's been dumped on and yet manages to go forward, and I'm hooked, I'm in love!"

Yolanda wrote in about heroes who wear a hair shirt with pride - she doesn't like this type of tortured hero, although she does enjoy other types of tortured heroes. What she does find enjoyable is the depth of thought that accompanies the torture. "The ability to hate or torture oneself deeply should mean that they also have the ability to love deeply. However, overdone self-flagellation is a real turn-off - almost as much as a badly done 'big misunderstanding' plot line." So for Yolanda as well, it comes down to the "writer's skill in portraying the path to enlightenment".

Alecia too runs hot and cold regarding the tortured hero, depending on her mood. Sometimes she needs the more embattled and scarred heroes when she's in the mood for a dark romance. The line she sees too often crossed, however, is the "it's not my fault because" type of behavior of many tortured heroes who come across as weak and unable to "get over it". Again, I find myself in agreement, both with Yolanda and the hero who takes the world's problems too much to heart, and with Alecia who dislikes heroes who don't seem to be able to accept responsibility for anything.

Where do you fit into this little schematic? Please e-mail me with your comments and I'll report them at a later date.

Next time we'll be talking about the tormented heroine. Since I first mentioned her, Lisa Kleypas wrote in about her, in response to my discussing one of her heroines. If you haven't yet, I hope you'll read Lisa's Quickie. If you haven't weighed in on the tormented heroine yet, please do so by emailing me.

Torture & the English Hero:
In the last column I asked why we so love English heroes when there is this stereotype of English men as bad lovers and not terribly filled with romance. I wasn't really clear in my mind what the problem I have with our devotion to the English hero is, since I find appealing the romance where the heroine cracks the stone wall covering the hero's heart. After having heard from several readers, I was able to distill my thoughts. It seems to me that there are two types of tortured heroes - the closed off hero and the overly emotional one.

So the question becomes whether those English tortured heroes who are overly emotional are accurate. Emotional Irish and Scots heroes? Yes. Overly emotional English heroes? On this I'm less sure, and I'm speaking more of stereotypes than of reality. That is to say, the stereotype of the English man is of the stiff upper lip, not the loose cannon. But it took me a while to get to this, and here is how you helped me along the way:

Jen wrote that the whole idea of the English as "stuffy, aloof, and stoic didn't really come into fruition until the Victorian period. The Regency, for example, is a period filled with color, music, and lots of ribald sex. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Brits during that period were running about like randy Italians, I certainly think they were more motivated by passion than their predecessors in the Victorian Era. Most romance novels set in England tend to gravitate toward periods in which the English were much more lively and down to earth: the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Georgian Era, the Regency."

I found Jen's answer very helpful, but I wonder about movies like Rob Roy, where the protagonist was a lusty Scots and the villain a foppish Brit, but I suppose the fop is a completely different animal, and one suited to a different column.

Christine wrote that beneath that stiff upper lip is simmering passion. She finds that stiff upper lip far more attractive than "spilling your guts to the world" and points to actors such as Adrian Paul, Pierce Brosnan, and Sean Connery, who portray reserved men capable of great emotion. Christine, you won't get any disagreement with me on that, although I would add that Sean Connery is not English and Adrian Paul portrays a Scots.

Of course, Blythe reminded me that romance is fantasy, especially historic romance, in her comments that "Historicals set in the regency period are my favorite type of romance. My theory on why they are so popular is because they are historicals. Somehow when I think of a regency Duke I think dashing and romantic, but Duke in 1997 seems to mean in-breeding and bad teeth. Maybe nobility itself seems rooted in the past; what sounds great in 1815 seems outdated now. I like these British historicals because of the whole ambience of the time. They make me think of dashing spies, beautiful gowns, and masquerade balls. Today nobility makes me think of polo matches and silly hats. . . I think you get the idea."

Rebecca rightly mentioned that Americans tend to Americanize everyone in literature. While she concedes that a passionate alpha male Lord is more problematic for her than the stiff upper lip Lord, she added that "maybe it is not accurate historically to have a strong passionate Lord but somehow it is fulfilling a need in us as readers, and maybe if these romances were more accurate, we wouldn't buy them." Rebecca, you're exactly right! She also pointed out, as did Christine, that perhaps underneath the non-emotional veneer is a deep passion for life and intense feelings.

Rebecca also asked, "Have you noticed that we loose our fascination with British society after the Regency period, at least as far as romance is concerned?"

She is not the only reader to mention this. Jen asked a similar question, and I know from my own personal reading experience that my least favorite historical setting is the Victorian era, but I'd always assumed it wasn't far enough removed for the fantasy to work. Of course, that doesn't explain my fascination for and love of movies set in that time, but I'd like to open this up for further discussion.

How many of you out there have a sort of "cut-off" date for historicals? Do you read only medievals? Do you enjoy the Victorian period? Is Judy Cuevas/Judith Ivory the only author you read who writes in the period she writes (turn of the century/pre-WWI)? Will you read American Victorian romances but not British ones? Please e-mail me with your comments.

The Cover Controversy:
Last time Teresa told us about Tess Mallory's A Circle in Time, which she enjoyed, but which had a back cover that didn't do justice to the book, portraying it as nothing more than sex, sex, sex. Tess wrote in to let me know that the actual title of her book was Circles in Time. She got a kick seeing her name in the column, especially in conjunction with bad back covers because, as we've discussed before, authors do not write back blurbs and do not control their content.

She added that when she received from her publisher (Leisure) advance covers on her book, she was not a happy camper, especially "when I read succulent succubus. I thought it didn't really set the right tone for the book, which was actually a serious love story set in the days of Robin Hood. . . as the old saying goes, 'You can't tell a book from its cover!' Authors get just as frustrated as the readers, believe me!" She ended up her note by stating that she thinks "Leisure books have the most beautiful covers around and I'm happy to be one of their authors."

Laurie's Picks & Pans:
The Wedding Raffle by Geralyn Dawson , 1996 - 3+ hearts
MacLaren's Bride by Debra Dier, current - 3+ hearts (for a better Dier, try Scoundrel)
Roses at Midnight by Alexa Smart, current - 2 hearts

Speaking of Roses at Midnight, I was reminded after reading this book of Peggy Hanchar's Scottish Bride, a book which offered up a severed head on a platter. Gruesome? Gory? Disgusting? Hell, yes! Roses at Midnight, which could have been a decent romantic suspense, ended up as a ludicrous mishmosh of Frankenstein meets Jack the Ripper. Do you suppose there are authors out there who think a good way to stretch the bounds of the genre is by out-grossing each other? Have you read books where the romance took a very far back seat to violence and gore? Please let me know by emailing me.

Letter from Spider:
Jo Beverley recently forwarded to me a letter Spider Robinson posted to an on-line listserv. He is a well-respected sci-fi writer. Apparently the same woes faced by mid-list authors in the romance genre are faced by authors in the sci-fi genre. Jo prefaced Spider's letter with these comments:

Readers are going to have to be aggressive if they want to preserve diversity in the books available, if they want their favorite non- bestselling authors to be able to keep writing and selling.

As Spider says, the key action is to order the books you want, so you'll get them out of that first, small print run, and so that the publisher will be likely to reprint. Or, to pick up the book immediately it appears. But as he says, many of these small print run books aren't appearing in many places. There just aren't enough of them, and mega-quantities of bestsellers are hogging the shelves. So, as readers, we can't just drift along wondering when the next book by so-and-so will appear. If we do that, it probably won't, ever again.

I think Spider's remarks are the most gripping elucidation of the situation I've read.

Because I've talked in the past about the mid-list (see Issue #10 of this column as well as Barbara Samuel's Write Byte), I wanted to excerpt some of Spider's posting. When I do industry-related topics, I know many of you tune out, but anyone who loves genre books should be concerned. Anyone who reads mid-list authors should be concerned. Anyone who read Nancy Block's Once Upon a Pirate in 1995 and wondered why that's been her only published book to date, or who's wondered about the demise of the Harper Monogram imprint should read on.

Here are some excerpts:

The horse I ride on - the publishing industry, never exactly a thoroughbred - has just begun to stumble and cough up blood. Suddenly I need your help too badly not to pull on your coat-tail.

Let me try and give you an idea of how worried I am: I have recently given serious thought to what else I might do for a living, besides write books.

No, really. I have even. . .God, this is hard. . .I have even contemplated honest work. Of some kind. There must be some trade you can pick up at age forty-eight. . .right?

As concise a statement of the problem as I can provide: The publishing business has, in slow stages over the twenty-five years I've been writing, essentially been captured by the same kind of vampires that ruined Hollywood. . .who want only to milk the industry for the maximum possible short-term return and don't mind at all if they bleed it dead in the process. . . .

They have the same swing-for-the-fences mentality that is screwing up cinema. All we want here are zillion-dollar superstar blockbusters. . .and a few "little" pictures in which to groom the superstars of tomorrow. Nothing in between; no second features.

In like manner, many of the people making decisions in publishing today would like to have a list consisting of nothing but Clancy's and Parker's. . .and a handful of talented newcomers who might be the next Clancy or Parker, but meanwhile are willing to work for first-novel prices. (I hasten to add that I mean no slightest disrespect to either Tom Clancy or Robert Parker; I picked them because I respect them both highly, and buy their new books on sight.)

This isn't the editors and publishers themselves I'm talking about, either. Many if not most of them love good books, even now. But their policies are being made for them by the conglomerates that swallowed them up in the last decade or so. . . The ultimate, industry-shaping decisions are being made, as in Hollywood, by people who don't give a toasted damn about the product, much less the producer-slaves. What they want is simple: huge profits, now. Blockbusters. . .and good first novels, or hacks who are willing to work real cheap.

What they don't much want anymore are mid-list writers. Quirky scribblers. Ones with faithful but not mammoth audiences. Ones difficult to sum up to a salesman in Paducah with a one-sentence soundbite. Ones People magazine isn't talking about. Ones whose books haven't been a sma-shit (no, that's not misspelled) movie yet. . . .

I suddenly became very interested in things I'd never paid any attention to, like my own sales figures and print runs. I was fairly cheered by what few numbers I could find, lurking under concealment on assorted "royalty statements"; my printruns were routinely well over 100,000 copies, always sold well enough to call for at least a second printing. . . .

Tor, citing "industry retrenchment," only printed up less than one quarter as many copies as usual of (my latest) paperback, Callahan's Legacy.

That's right, a book which carries in it printed acknowledgment of all 60,000+ of you Callahan's fans, was not printed in sufficient numbers for half of you to buy a copy, should you be so inclined.

They will only go back to press if most of those sell out. Those pitifully few copies, like all paperbacks, have a maximum shelf-life of about a month. Tops. In some venues, a week.

So here at last is what I'm saying: if you were by any chance thinking of picking up the new one by any author you care about who isn't already a blockbuster superstar - for the love of God, please don't put it off! This chance may not come again. If it's not on the shelf, order it. . .fast, before they pulp the returns and unshipped copies.

Times have changed. If you love books, you must now start to change your thinking, and come to see them as precious, evanescent fireflies, which flicker briefly and then are no more.

If you do not stay alert for them, and grab them on sight, they will probably never be reprinted: the concept of backlist is on its way to the ash-heap. All of us who put words in a row for your enjoyment are in serious no-shit danger, and we need your help and support. . . .

Thanks for listening. Please forward. Tell your friends. Haunt your bookstore regularly, especially your independent or specialty bookstore. Ask them to phone you when a new book by your favorite author comes out; they'll be glad to take a list. . . .

People Who Read Books. . .next on Geraldo - it's not funny.

I'm interested in hearing from both authors and readers about the continuing mid-list crisis. Please email me with your thoughts.

Until We Meet Again:
I'm currently working with a few of you on a new Special Title Listings to go along with the other 24 lists I currently maintain. Over the last week, we began these five lists:

  • Bluestockings, Independent Miss', and Feminists
  • Rakes & Rogues
  • Spies, P.I.'s, & Warriors
  • Suspense
  • Villains
I'm contemplating starting a list on Men of Mystery; if you'd like to see such a list or have some titles to submit, please email me. But the list currently in progress is on conflict, broken out into two sections. One for external (or nearly fully external) conflict where the hero and heroine get along and are trying to resolve a mystery of some sort, and the other where the hero and heroine get along but either he or she has a major internal conflict which prevents him/her from committing to the relationship. If have some titles to submit in either of these arenas, please email me.

Again, I am planning to discuss tormented heroines next time, so please contact me with your comments on this type of heroine, whether pro or con, favorites or least-liked tormented heroines, by emailing me.

Coming later this week will be a Write Byte with author Paula Detmer Riggs. Upcoming Topics include those with Susan Wiggs and Linda Madl. These can be accessed here. Finally, I'm working on an interview with a new favorite author for me - Jane Ashford. That interview should be on-line in about a week. If you haven't read my interview with Nora Roberts, please click here.

TTFN, Laurie Likes Books

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