Issue #39 (November 20, 1997)
I Know It's Fall, But Come the Spring:
Do You Really Read Those Books?
You're going to have to bear with me. I do have a point, but I have to make it in rather a roundabout manner.
I try to keep my ears open in bookstores and in various locales on the 'Net, and one thing I've determined is many on-line readers have more sophisticated tastes in romance reading than I have. It seems to me that there are levels of, for want of a better word, snobbery, among romance readers.
There are, for instance, readers for whom historical accuracy is vastly important and those for whom it is less so. Some readers cannot read the books of certain authors because of these inaccuracies. And, some of these very readers tend to look down upon those of us who either don't have the historical background to know about all the inaccuracies or don't care about them unless they are particularly egregious.
There are other readers who will not read category romances and those who will not read Harlequin Historicals. I must say I used to fall into this group - I thought both category romance and Harlequin Historicals were "old lady spinster" books. I admit it - I was wrong. While I still don't read many category romances, there are certain authors who write them that I will read. And, as a general rule, I have found the quality of Harlequin Historicals to be fairly consistent. Many of my favorite authors write for this line. Still, I hear from readers who think category romances and HH's are "write by numbers" books with out creativity.
Then there are "light" romances, romances written by very talented women who look at romance with a humorous bent. I happen to love such romances, and I have often felt subtle condemnation in my choice for not reading more of the "darker", "heavier" romances with more "substance".
Romance reading for me is pure escapism. I enjoy a variety of styles. I need to "mix it up", however; too many dark medievals and I begin to get depressed. Too many frothy reads and I begin to crave the darkness again. Overall, however, I choose my reading material based on what I need from it. When I want to be carried away, and perhaps along the way learn a bit of history, I choose an historical romance. When my primary focus is to learn history, I read historical fiction. For me, I don't really want both at one time - I want either to focus on the history or the romance. I will work hard in reading a piece of historical fiction. I don't want to have to work hard in reading a romance - I simply want to enjoy it.
My taste in movies is much the same. Ask me for my favorite Humphrey Bogart movie and my answer will not be Casablanca, but We're No Angels. My favorite movie would not be Citizen Kane but Meet Me in St. Louis.
I think that makes me different from many readers, but my sense is that there are many readers who read romance for the same reason as I. I'd like to hear from you on subtle snobbery, and what you look for in a romance. Have you been a snob? Are you a snob? It's okay to admit it; there are worse things to be a snob about! Do you share my peasant tastes for pure entertainment? Please let me know by e-mailing me.
Need Fulfilled: Julie Garwood
One author who has generally provided me with what I need is Julie Garwood. Her books are entertaining, quick to read, funny, sexy, and have characters I come to care about.
Earlier this month, Julie's latest hardback was released - Come the Spring. Within a day or so, I was receiving mail from readers wanting to know my opinion on the book. I have opinions and will share them, but, a couple of days ago, I received a Desert Isle Keeper review of a classic Garwood romance, The Lion's Lady. This book is one of my all-time favorites, and after reading the review, I pulled the book out and re-read it, falling in love with it yet again.
I mention this because when I compare this older Garwood to her latest release, several things become apparent to me. The first is that, with a deft hand, a hero who has been "done wrong" does not have to act the typically tortured hero. True, I might not spend 300 pages with him working through his sorrow, and often at the expense of the heroine, but I can get a sense of his pain and his renewal even if the take is a humorous one. Cases in point, Julie Garwood's heroes. Some have had mothers who didn't love them. Some have been beaten by others. Some have been cuckolds. But they get over it and maintain their humor. And they fall in love, treating their heroines with tender care.
Secondly, good humor is very difficult to create. As Jennifer Cruisie said (in Issue #20), "One mistake some writers make is assuming that banter between the heroine and hero must be insulting. Banter is just the opposite: it assumes a caring and respectful knowledge of each other so that the wordplay never insults; banter is a ping pong match with words and you don't play ping pong with grenades. In an exchange of insults, each person is trying to silence the other; in banter, each person is eager to hear what the other is going to bounce back with because that's what makes the conversation play . . . and foreplay."
I can't begin to list all the books in which the supposed humor seems mean-spirited. The occasional barb can create sexual tension, but if that's all there is to the "humor", the author will invariably lose me. What Jennifer said about humor as foreplay particularly resonates with me after having re-read The Lion's Lady.
One of the reasons I have so loved Julie Garwood's writing is because of her love scenes. And, one of the components of her love scenes is what I consider "verbal foreplay". I'm not talking about a scene in which the hero and heroine talk about what they are going to do to each other, or about the kind of arguments heroes and heroines get into that create sexual tension. No, I'm talking about humorous situations and dialogue that cues me into what is coming next.
Garwood, of course, is not the only one who does this. Stella Cameron, in Bride, wrote such a humorously sexy scene between Justine and Struan when he is trying to teach her to dance that, after I cooled down, had me applauding her skill as an author. Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick is another author who uses humorous dialogue and situations as a prelude to love scenes. There are other authors, of course, who do this well, but, in my mind, none has done it better than Julie Garwood has.
In Castles, for instance, heroine Alesandra, who has a penchant for note-taking, gets into her marriage bed with a pad of paper and pen in hand. What follows is both sexy and funny. In The Wedding, truly not one of Julie's best, but still a strong 4 for me, the wedding scene went on for close to 50 pages. It was hysterical - and I knew there would be a lovely love scene at its conclusion.
Do you know of the sort of verbal foreplay I'm talking about? Do certain authors lead us on to "the good stuff"? Please e-mail me with your comments and authors who fit this bill.
In Come the Spring, there is laughter - I laughed out loud on page 18. In Come the Springs there is an interesting story told. But, in Come the Spring, the humor and the story didn't take me where Garwood has taken me in the past. As to my rating, she earns a 4- for this book. With the exception of One Red Rose, which earned a two from me a few weeks ago, a 4- is as low as it goes for me and Julie Garwood.
Problem number one - the hero and heroine don't meet until nearly page 100 of a book that is about 350 pages in length. At a romance writer's conference I attended recently, I learned from Phyllis Taylor Pianka, who teaches on the subject, that one of the rules of romance is to introduce the hero and heroine early on in a romance. "Only a best-selling author can get away with breaking that convention", said Phyllis in my discussion with her. Was Julie trying to stretch that convention of romance writing or is it a sign that this book is a move to the mainstream? Regardless of the reason behind this, one of my requirements for loving a romance is having the hero and heroine together for most of the story. While I was engaged throughout this book, the fact that the lead characters were not together for roughly a third of the story detracted from it. Especially since one of the things that Julie does best is having her lead characters mirror each other's thoughts and comments, but in reverse. That's darn difficult to accomplish when they aren't with each other! (Please e-mail me if having the characters together for most of a romance is one of your requirements to a good read.)
Problem number two - there was one 2-page love scene in the book for the lead characters, and none at all for the secondary love story. Love scenes for secondary lovers is not generally something needed in a romance, but in this book, they received nearly as much space as did the lead characters, and I felt cheated when all they shared was a kiss or two.
For me, a romance novel is, in the main, about that heady time when two people are falling in love, and being at the start of a wonderful relationship. In my experience, lust is a great part of this time in a romance. As Jo-Ann Power said to me in a phone interview earlier this week (which I'll be working on and should post within a couple of weeks), "Love scenes are an important part of a romance novel. I wouldn't dream of short-changing readers on this." She also indicated that, based on her own personal research (aren't husbands the greatest for this sort of thing?), men "tune out" love scenes.
Both Phyllis Pianka and Victoria Alexander, when I interviewed them at this writer's conference, said that it can get boring to write love scenes - after all, "how many ways can two people do it?"
Jo Beverley's response to me when I posed that question to her was, "I'm sure this happens, I don't agree with the definitive statement "it gets difficult etc..."
"I don't know what factors contribute to this for some writers, but to me it's no more likely than getting tired of writing romances. Each one is a new adventure, and each time by hero and heroine touch for the first time, kiss for the first time, or have sex for the first time is an adventure too, and I'm not sure how they're going to do it."
So, with all that in mind, and given the fact that Julie Garwood has, in the past, written fabulous love scenes in more than a dozen previous romances, what do you suppose is going on? Could she have simply "burned out" on the love scene? Or is it that she's "burned out" on romance? Or is it that either she or Pocket Books believes she has to minimize them to appeal to a widestream audience?
Beyond that, what satisfies you, specifically, about love scenes? How many do you like in a romance? Think back to your favorite luscious love stories (which can be found by looking at various Special Title Listings and recall what made them so special. Does your favorite author always write two strong love scenes? Do you feel cheated without at least one strong love scene? And, if you are one of those readers who says, "I generally skip the love scenes - they tend all to be alike", explain to me how a love story can satisfy you in heart, body, and mind, without some shared lust. Please e-mail me with your answers.
Before I close out this topic, I'd like to share two letters I recently received The first is from Bonnie. While different from mine, her preferences are nonetheless valid:
Now I'll really show how "out of the mainstream" I am compared to other romance readers. One of the reasons that I stuck with regencies for years and shunned contemporaries was because of love scenes.
I love romance. But I don't see for the life of me why I have to have a (heh heh) "blow-by-blow" description of the act of making love! I feel like a voyeur. I don't feel the need to get all "hot and bothered" when reading a book. That comes perilously close to reading for masturbation purposes for me. I read my books for escape (and occasional education!), not vicarious sex. I don't have the need for a book to get me all "hot and bothered" either so I can run to my dh, it's easy to do without a book to stimulate me.
I realize I'll get creamed for this letter, but just wanted to speak for what is probably a minority.
I now do read contemporaries, I can "get past" the sex scenes now without it ruining the book for me. I have enjoyed them, and realized that I missed some good stories by avoiding ones with sex. (Harder to do nowadays).
Give me good characterization development, and a good romance over a hot sex scene in a book anyday! I'll save the hot sex for where it really is useful - at home, in person, and not on the printed page.
Next is Rebecca's email. I think her views are more in tune with my own in general, although I do not read many of the authors she mentions by name:
I think that love scenes are an integral aspect of a romance and, like you, feel cheated if the book does not include them. I have also noticed that authors seem to be toning down their love scenes.
Of course, the other extreme is problematic also. Susan Johnson used to write love stories that featured hot sex. Now she just writes sex scenes with a smattering of romance. Her last books have featured characters that I not only don't care about, but that I actively dislike. Why should I want to read about two selfish people getting it on a hundred different ways? The situation is the same with Thea Devine and Bertrice Small. Both write "romances" (although I would dispute that title) that feature lots of sex between two people who have not formed an emotional bond with one another.
Without the emotional aspect, the books are not sexy at all, merely clinical.
I think a well-written love scene can add a tremendous amount to a story, provided the love scene is integrated within the overall tone of the book and experiences of the characters. Leaving out these scenes or toning them down cheats the reader out of a critical aspect of the character's relationship.
Problem number three - length. In general, there is never enough to a Garwood romance; I always want more. But, rather than simple greed being a motivation, in this case, the length of the book was problematic. Because the lead characters meet so late in the book, there wasn't enough time for me to have them together. And, had the book been longer, Garwood could easily have written one of her spectacular love scenes for me to savor. Finally, there was no time for interplay between at least one of the lead characters and the family. Aside from Nora Roberts, I think Julie Garwood does family better than anyone. Whether there are problems between family members or strong positive relationships, her family scenes are always wonderful, and full of camaraderie or humor. While I suppose the scenes between Cole and Daniel in Come the Spring were sort of a sibling-substitution, it's just not the same.
Problem number four - the setting. I know there are those among you who thoroughly enjoy the western romance. But, am I crazy, or have Julie's books set in the west been less enjoyable than her books set in England or Scotland? I felt that first after reading Prince Charming. Again, a less than wonderful Garwood, for me in general, is still better than most romances, but the feeling was reinforced after reading One Red Rose and Come the Spring. I did actually enjoy One White Rose, but how can you go wrong with a hero and heroine together nearly every page of a Garwood romance?
I do plan to ask Julie next month what her plans for the future entail - we have a luncheon interview planned in mid-December - but, meanwhile I'd like to hear from you, so e-mail me.
So, Feel free to write me about whether you have felt the snobbery I mentioned earlier, or whether you, as one reader recently wrote me, believe that humor has no place in historical romance. Whether we agree or not, you know I want to hear from you! Also, write me if you are a Garwood lover of one of those for whom Garwood doesn't work. Do you prefer her English/Scots romances or did you think Prince Charming was as good if not better than The Bride? If you've read Come the Spring and think it doesn't measure up, tell me why. If you've read it and thought it was as good as her older books (and, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it but feel it is not on a par with her regency-era quartet, The Bride, Saving Grace, The Secret, The Prize, or Rebellious Desire), I want to hear from you as well. Please e-mail me with your comments.
Some Silly Sex:
Reader Gillian Webster recently sent me a couple of snippets from Joan Hohl's A Window On Tomorrow that should be entered into the silly sex hall of fame. Readers who enjoyed the Purple Prose Parody I conducted earlier this year should get a kick out of these:
Gillian indicated that in the first snippet, Andrea is admiring Paul's body. She is ashamed to be ogling him, but he tells her not to feel shame and mentions that he's been admiring her body as well:If you have any silly sex snippets to share, whether phrases or words, or some new euphemism you've read about, please share it with your fellow readers by emailing me."Your body is beautiful. Your skin is soft and silky," he whispered. "I feel no shame in admiring the gentle contour of your slender hips, the delicate curve of your breasts and the appealing cast of your lovely features." He lay on the blanket beside her. His voice was the only part of him that touched her. "And what shame should I feel in admiring that most feminine part of you, that exquisite mound of utter beauty and ultimate, infinite pleasure?" (emphasis added)Gillian wrote that, in the second snippet, they have recently had sex and are getting ready for a second round. We pick up the action mid-sentence:. . . at that instant she felt Paul's life force leap inside her. Her half-closed eyes flew open and she gave a little cry of surprise.
"Yes, my Andrea," he said in that soft tone that sent shivers tumbling through her. "The pathway to paradise beckons once more." Lowering his head, he whispered against her parted lips, "Will you ride the pathway with me?"
In Answer To. . .
Author Sharon Ihle's question about the proliferation of Christmas romances and anthologies in general, I think the majority of my readers must be like me - malcontents. Considering that these types of romances are proliferating, someone must be buying them. But you, in the main, do not enjoy these books, especially the anthologies. Frankly, very few of you wrote in about Christmas romances, and my guess would be that if they were full-length romances (either category or single title), most of you would not mind. But, while a few of you appreciate the anthology-length stories specifically for their brevity, and that includes busy authors with little time to read, most of you have been disappointed by anthologies. Here's what some of you had to say:
Janet wrote: "I don't like them. Another reader (in the last issue) wrote 'fool me once, shame on you...Fool me twice'. . . well I'm really a fool. I've bought them three times and have always felt cheated. The characters are so wooden and unreal to me that I just can't enjoy them. I will never buy another of those blasted things again no matter whose name is on the cover."
Sonja said: "I have read three or four anthologies and found all of them lacking. I felt cheated. I like books with lots of action, dialogue and description. I like the relationship between the characters to gradually build and be believable. I have yet, in my admittedly limited experience with anthologies, to see this demonstrated. There just isn't enough time or space for the author to go into as much detail as I like.
"On the subject of holiday-themed novels: Give me a break would ya? Never read one and don't plan on starting. They turn me off. The concept is a little too cutesy and trite for me. If an important incident in a book happens during a certain Holiday season, why not just say that? No need for the cover, the title and the theme of the book to be Christmas, Halloween, etc. The readers who buy these novels must be the same ones who bought all the angel and baby-themed novels not too long ago."
Eleanor hates anthologies and is of the same mind-set as Sonja in regard to themed-romances. She wrote, "I particularly wouldn't buy anything as silly as a themed anthology - Christmas, Mothers' Day, Valentine's Day, whatever. Haven't we had enough of the real thing? Why would I want to read about Christmas when I am celebrating it myself? I read for escapism, not reinforcement! Clearly I've missed something here."
Bonnie is like me and squash casserole. I always order it at a particular restaurant and am never satisfied. She said: "Well, it's that time of the year again. And again, I bit and bought a new Christmas anthology. It was recommended. But - I found it fair at the best. A short story just does not have enough pages to "set up" the romance in a believable way. The hero and heroine fall in love, just because they "have to" fall in love, not because it progresses naturally. It's like 'Whoa, almost end of book, OK now we're in love, let's get married and live happily ever after!' 99 out of 100 times, the couples have barely got to know each other, and it is contrived.
"So you may ask, why be stupid and keep buying them? Well - I love the Christmas season, so like stories with holiday festivities included, and I would like a well-written short story (quicker to read). However, I'm beginning to believe that there is no such thing as a 'well-written short story!' "
On the other hand, Barb finds anthologies fit in with her busy lifestyle and prevent her from staying up until the wee hours of the morning to finish reading that romance. Joan is like Barb in that respect, and offers up these reasons in defense of the anthology: "I agree that for most of the stories contained therein, there is a certain lack of characterization, fullness of plot and sex too soon. However, I must note that I do enjoy reading them for more than one reason:
"While I agree that the stories are always truncated, and sometimes they leave me wanting I think that many writers recognize this problem. Witness Judith McNaught's reaction to the calls for Nicky DuVille's story. She wrote a short story in an anthology, it was immensely popular, and now she's planning to expand it as her next (?) book. I for one can't wait."
It seems as though many readers don't generally enjoy anthologies, but continue to buy them in hopes of finding a hidden gem. While I feel cheated to only enjoy one or two stories out of four or five, Yvonne can usually "count on one really good story and one fairly good story and anything more is icing on the cake. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but when it does it is marvelous.
"I have just read a Loretta Chase's, Falling Stars in an older Christmas anthology, A Christmas Present, totally wonderful. In fewer than 90 pages, Chase creates a viable regency world, tells of a past relationship and misunderstanding between the h/h, creates secondary characters who are alive and singular, and then the gradually understanding and new depth of love between the h/h.
"The other two stories in this anthology I didn't bother reading after skimming their beginning pages because the story lines were just totally out of kilter with Falling Stars but the book was well worth it just for this one story by Chase.
"It's probably very much a matter of taste and inclination as to how one feels about reading anthologies. I have no qualms about not reading every story in the anthology and I have had the great fortune to find some stories that were totally exceptional. . . ."
And while Sonja and Eleanor don't "get" the concept behind the Christmas-themed romance, readers Blythe and Nathalie do. Nathalie finds most anthologies too short, but loves those with a Christmas theme. She guesses that because time is so hurried during the Christmas season, reading a short story is "just right' at that time. Blythe believes that Christmas "must somehow be inherently romantic, and because of the fixed nature of the time frame, it lends itself well to a short story."
Sharon, I don't know whether these comments have answered your question, and there were many more comments received than I could possibly have printed here. As usual, there is no one viewpoint that readers have in common.
Laurie's Picks & Pans: You can link here for all my picks and pans, but here is what I've read recently:
And Now, the End is Near:
We've run out of time before running out of topics. That just means I have a jump-start on the next issue, so check back soon.
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