Issue #45 (February 1, 1998)
Laurie's News & Views Takes the Next Step:
With a thousand emails now sitting in my in box, I realized that I am not doing a good job taking care of correspondence. I've tried to get things under control, but I've failed miserably. Then a light bulb went off over my head - cut out the middle man. In my columns I have several "e-mail me here with your comments" statements. You write me, I read it immediately, than dither around deciding what to do with it - do I put it on a page, save it for a column, ask for more information. . . ? More often than not, lately, it then gets lost in my own person version of a cyberspace black hole.
Dana Tuskey, web-mistress of Romancing the Web, sponsors my column. Her super site has several message boards, which allow readers to post comments immediately for other readers to read and respond to. Since my column is sponsored by Dana, why not ask Dana for an LN&V message board, which will be wiped clean with each new column? Instead of asking you to send me comments which may take weeks or months to see the light of day, why not let you respond to the column and share your thoughts immediately? Other readers could then respond, and I'd pay close attention to the responses, and follow up on those of particular interest?
The Internet is supposed to be interactive, and that's what I've always tried to do here. But interactive and immediate is even better, so we're going to try out this message board and see how it goes. I will be reading the message board often, and hope you will take advantage of this new interactive opportunity to talk, not only with me, but with other readers/authors about issues from this column.
In order for this to work, the board will have to stay very focused, and limited only to discussion of topics brought up in this column. When you access the board, you will find a restatement of the topics from this column to help you gather your thoughts. Feel free to e-mail me privately or to contact another poster privately if you want to go too far off on a tangent.
I feel very strongly about romances wherein the hero and heroine are separated for large portions of the book. Another reader, Beverly Latham, feels equally as strongly, and we've been talking about this on-line for several weeks now. Since you've all heard from me before about this, I wanted Beverly to put her feelings into words, and I think she's done a fine job. She and I don't agree on all of what she's written, but she's expressed her points well, and I'd love to know where you stand.
Here's what Beverly had to say:
"Several weeks ago, Laurie tossed out the topic of hero/heroine separations and I immediately tossed back, "I hate them!" Naturally, her reply to my rather emphatic assertion was just as prompt but much more calm, 'Why?' It was while I was muttering I don't know" to myself - not to her, mind you, never to her, I've learned that lesson, thank you very much -- that I realized a very important truth. As much as I love her All About Romance web-site, I could as easily hate it. Why? Well, because she challenges me to think. Not that thinking is bad, in and of itself. It's just doggone inconvenient and annoying, if stimulating and exhilarating at the same time. Like this last several weeks when it resulted in mental stewing over this separation business and all the related side issues all through the inevitable chaos of the holidays.
"For instance, why, over the years, has this intense, personal aversion to hero/heroine separations in romances developed? Or, why do I need a solid sense of togetherness between the hero and heroine for a romance to be satisfying read? Why is a hero/heroine separation the one element that can almost automatically lower a potentially great romance read down to merely an average keeper or nudge a strong yet average story completely off my keeper shelf and into the trade-in bag? Every reader's tolerance limits for separations and acceptable conditions that define togetherness will be different, but here are some of the things I've discovered about my own preferences while looking over my collection of romance keepers at Laurie's gentle insistence. The first thing I had to do was clear up in my own head what I meant by hero/heroine separations, both what they are and what they are not.
"I realized there were three distinct separation conditions I react strongly to in romance novels - physical distance, emotional isolation and how long either exists. Let's start with length, or maybe brevity would be a better word. A brief 'parting of the ways' in whatever form is not usually a problem for me in a romance but a long, major one is by definition A Separation, plain and simple. So, what is long and major? First of all, it is not a matter of chronological time from the character's perspective, but almost literally how many pages of the story they're kept apart from my perspective as the reader. How much is too much depends on the writer's style and the plot circumstances and is much more a measure of quality than quantity.
"I just finished a story by Deborah Simmons called The Devil Earl, where five months of separation with the hero in London and the heroine still in Cornwall went by between scenes. Between one scene to the next. Because I'd been working on this article for Laurie, it really jolted me how little that situation bothered me because the actual time apart wasn't dealt with in pages but sentences. They didn't even get back together for another four or five pages, yet I didn't find myself asking the ominous question 'When are they going to get back together?' because I knew the setup for them doing so was already there in the story. What a relief because if I hear that question in my head, a romance is in big trouble. That's when I'm pulled out of the story and tempted to begin skipping ahead. Usually, I give in to the temptation rather quickly because once the question is raised, I have to know that a satisfying reunion is going to happen. And, more importantly, how soon. To put it bluntly, unless it's an author I know fairly well, like Garwood, that author loses my trust, then and there, and it's very difficult to get it back. Or convince me to go back to read The Separation, no matter what the justification for it is.
"The most obvious separations are physical, naturally. Literal physical distance put between the hero and heroine for long periods of the story makes me grit my teeth. Honest. Does this mean I expect the pair to exist in each other's pockets throughout? No, but I do expect them to be able to communicate - one way or another. If physical circumstances prevent any form of interaction between them, then they are certainly not together by any stretch of the imagination. Interestingly enough, distance alone does not have to stop communication. One of the most intriguing stories in my collection is a short story by Anne Avery called A Dance on the Edge of Time in the Lovescape anthology. The pair in it do not physically meet until page 57 of a 58 page story. Normally, this would sound like a death knell, but wait - they e-mail each other. They never meet until the end and yet they learned all the things they needed about each other. I love that story because the author proved it isn't distance, or lack thereof, but communication that makes a romance into a romance. Remove that and an enormous chunk of the romance is gone.
"Which brings me to emotional as opposed to physical separation. Essentially, the two conditions are very different in terms of impact on plots and yet both can create that intense sense of separation that drives me up the wall. If I had to say which one is the worst, though, emotional isolation is a clear winner because while physical distance can be overcome with some alternate form of communication, emotion isolation is simply that. Isolation. How can love grow in a vacuum?
"When I read a story labeled romance, I expect to experience the hero and heroine falling in love. Emotional interaction at some level for me is equivalent to the process of falling in love and I'm not sure one can exist without the other. To fall in love they have to get to know each other and how can they do that if they're separated, especially emotionally? If I can't be convinced the pair can, and are, opening their hearts to each other, I can't enjoy the romance in the first place, no matter how physical the relationship might be.
"In an earlier rambling discussion which Laurie attached to one of her columns, I talked about loving a plotting style I call early intimacy. Early intimacy isn't about physical togetherness any more than it's about emotional connection. That's only part of it. I'm beginning to believe the heart of the style is centered in the pair's commitment, but especially the hero's, to them being a couple, one way or another. Their openness to communicate and stand by each other. That's what's different from the norm about the writings of Joy, Garwood, Krentz, Dodd and several others. How many traditional romance heroes 'commit' to the relationship as early in the story as these author's?!? Not many. They resist, they waffle, they downright run away if only internally! They're dark and dangerous and extremely difficult to get close to.
"But not those committed heroes . . . (sigh) Take Jayne Anne Krentz, for example, in any AKA. Her stories are almost comfort reading for me because I can pick one at random and be assured of finding a committed relationship almost from the start and generally no separation at any point. Yes, her heroes tend towards dark, sometimes downright dangerous and usually have some really strange emotional quirks, but almost to a one they respect and communicate with their heroines. Her heroines might be truly ditzy but one thing they all do have in common are strong voices that let the heroes know exactly where they stand at all times. Perfect communication? Well, no. If it was, where would the romance have to grow? If this is repetitive and unimaginative plotting, I'd still rather have it than Pining From Afar or the Big Misunderstanding any day of the week.
"I'm interested in learning from readers who do like separations in a romance. What do you get out of them? I'm finding that I come from such a polar extreme on this issue that I have absolutely no understanding of why either of the two conditions, physical distance or emotional isolation, which stop me cold in a story I expect to be a romance, could in any way be a good read for someone else. What is it that keeps others reading under those conditions? Do you honestly enjoy these separations or do you simply have more tolerance regarding them than I do? I am truly baffled by this one and want some input from others. I doubt I could be swayed into reading a book that includes such a major separation, but I'd like for someone to explain it to me without my feeling like shuddering in response. "
I think Beverly's dead-on when it comes to physical separation. I thought her discussion of physical separations that don't include the reader was a good one. Kat Martin's Innocence Undone features a lengthy separation at the end of the book, but it all happens between chapters and I wasn't subjected to it. I loved the book and how the hero and heroine were reunited. Karen Ranney's new book for Avon features a similar separation, an entire year this time, and it too occurs between chapters. When a separation occurs between chapters, I don't get itchy fingers (as initially discussed in the last issue of this column.
While I agree with Beverly about physical separation, I don't necessarily agree with her where emotional isolation exists. It is true that many of my favorite romance authors are those who create early emotional connections between characters. But I've also loved romances where one of the lead characters cuts off, or at the very least, tries to cut off, an emotional relationship with the other lead. Velvet Bond comes to mind immediately - in this medieval, the hero does not trust the heroine and so does his damndest not to allow for an emotional connection. The extent of the emotional isolation imposed by the hero made his realization that he was wrong all the more powerful. While I'm not particularly a fan of the big misunderstanding romance, it can be effective when it results in this emotional isolation. For when the hero realizes his error, the emotional impact is all the stronger.
After you've read through the column, feel free to link to the message board and share how you feel about physical and emotional separations.
Three Degrees of Romance:
What particularly interested me about Beverly's discussion of an early emotional connection, however, was her talk about certain books and authors appealing to her comfort zone. Especially in light of something we were talking about on my listserv recently.
The listserv discussion was centered around reviews (this is a hot issue that comes up several times a year), and how Nadine divides readers into categories. In a sense, what she's doing is similar to what I used to advocate at The Romance Reader and why I instituted the Desert Isle Listings there so that readers could match themselves up to a particular reviewer if they so desired.
Nadine wrote, "I generally divide readers into three very broad categories:
While I'm not sure that these categories work for many readers, I found that they made some sense for me. I tend to read romances in the first two categories Nadine listed. Too many of the comfort reads and they all start to run together. Too many of the upheavals and I feel a headache coming on from all the arguing. I personally need a mixture of books from those first two categories, although I'd list different authors than Joyce or Henley.
I have only read Laura Kinsale from the third category and found she made me work too hard for my enjoyment. As a result, I haven't read Cuevas/Ivory, or Gaffney, although I have enormous respect for them. I also have some of their books in my tbr shelves, waiting for the day when I'll be ready to tackle them.
After you've read through the column, feel free to link to the message board and talk about "comfort reads", as well as the three distinctions Nadine constructed.
I'm reading a book now which won't be released for several months. It's not going well. There are a pair of villains who keep doing the nasty in a very nasty way.
Stella Cameron's Bride was the first romance I read where the author juxtaposed wonderful lovemaking between the hero and heroine with skanky sex between two villains. It was a novel premise for me then, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Since then, I've come across it a few too many times, recently in Julie Garwood's Come the Spring, and yet again in this yet-to-be-released book.
The juxtaposition of loving love scenes and skanky ones can illustrate that sex with love is beautiful and sex without love is, at the very least, just sex. It can also be selfish, gratuitous, and perverse. I tried to read one book last year featuring a three-way between a father, son, and whore. I could not finish the book. Another book featured a grown man suckling at his mother's breast; this book had many, many problems, but this was my breaking point from which there was no return.
I wonder whether, as a plot device, the skanky love scene has become overused. I only discovered its use a few years ago, but don't really know how long it's been in use. I know that I found it used well in only Bride - either I felt like a voyeur in the other books or found it a hackneyed device. I'd like to know how you feel and when you first came across this type of scene, and whether you've read it once too often lately.
It's a Wrap:
Since we're at the end of the column, now is the time to take this link to the Laurie's News & Views Message Board, share what you think about the various topics in the column, and find out what others are thinking. I will be checking often and may get in touch with you about a particular posting you've made, which may appear at a later date in the column itself.
If you're wondering why there is not a Laurie's Picks & Pans segment in this column, it's because I've discontinued that feature in lieu of expanding my review section to include reviews of new releases. Some longtime contributors to All About Romance have also begun reviewing for me. We're taking this very slowly - please be patient with us as we work through this new expansion.
Don't forget that the deadline for emailing me your personal romantic story is almost upon us. February 8th is the deadline for the Most Romantic Story contest. For further details, please click here - this will take you to the last issue of my column where the contest is explained.
To e-mail me your story, or to get in touch with me about something that doesn't pertain to this week's column, e-mail me here.
Coming next time - the winner of the Most Romantic Story contest, and the winners of the 1997 All About Romance Reader Awards.
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