Issue #49 (April 1, 1998)
Introducing the Duke of Slut:
Horror author Douglas Clegg aka Andrew Harper recently introduced me to the Duke of Slut. You know who I mean. He's the romance hero who has systematically bedded all the women in the ton, who has had mistress upon mistress, who, if he were a woman, would be considered a bimbo, a slut. Call him Damien or Alexander or The Raven, but you could probably call him himbo or male slut and it would be fairly accurate.
In historical romances set in the Georgian or Regency periods, this type of hero is among the most popular. How realistic he is is up for debate, given the prevalence of sexually transmitted disease and the fact that there weren't hundreds of Dukes running around at the time, to say the least. The point is, of course, that when you think about it, this is the type of man many of us love to read about. Why is that? Would we respect such a man in real life? Today he'd likely be called a sexual addict and be joked about on Letterman.
So, what is it that attracts us in romance to a man who feels the need to stick his wicket everywhere? I asked that question because Doug had started me thinking about some of my favorite romance heroes in a way I'd not thought about them before.
I'll admit once again that I speak out of both sides of my mouth quite often, and when Jo Beverley answered this question, I could only say to myself that not only did Doug have a point, but so did Jo. Here's what she had to say:
"I don't think many readers go for a hero who's completely promiscuous. . . whatever whore lifts her skirts. But there's a lot of appeal to the expert lover, and he's got to practice somewhere. Also, a man who genuinely likes the company of women, the look and feel of a woman, the taste, etc. etc. is very appealing, and if he likes them so much, and is more than twenty, why hasn't he been going for what he enjoys so much?
"But there's a fantasy element, and it's fun, and romances are written for women, even if men do enjoy them, and sometimes we like a hunk who's honed his amatory arts with a hundred women and come to lay them all reverently, and exclusively, before us."
I'd like to take Jo's comments a step further. This type of hero who so loves women feels something different when he's with the heroine. For once, something else happens, when he's dancing with her, riding with her, or making love to her. While he's been pleasured or pleasured a multitude of other women, when he's with her it's better than it has ever been before. And since he's been with some of the best lovers (and is always one of the best himself), that's pretty amazing, don't you think? Why, it must be love! Especially since the heroine is untutored, unskilled, and generally scared of the prospect - yet still heats up like she's done this before.
I don't mean to make light of this, because I love these heroes and these love scenes. But it makes you wonder, doesn't it? Especially since so many of us also enjoy romances where the hero is a virgin. We'll talk about it some more on the message board.
Coffee. . .The Grinds:
The women who contribute to All About Romance are a talented group, with lots to say about what they love and don't love about romance novels. Anne Ritter, who is not only Special Title Listings editor, but reviewer and soon to be interviewer, lives in Minnesota. We are almost exactly the same age, suffer insomnia, and have fairly different tastes in romance reading. We are both married to wonderful men, who both happen to be addicted to coffee (can you imagine the expressions on the other men's faces when my husband whipped out his french press and freshly ground imported beans during a recent Indian Princess camp out?), which neither Anne nor myself drink. Which leads me to Anne's recent tirade. We may not have been separated at birth, but we both find coffee to be a major pet peeve in romance novels. . .
Coffee is a curious beverage. It's devotees are rabid. To a coffee drinker, caffeine is as necessary as water to sustain life. Myself, I fail to see the attraction. Anytime I get within sniffing distance of a cup of coffee, I have to reach for my asthma inhaler and an antihistamine. I am allergic to caffeine. Who could ever fathom something so horrendous?
My own husband is a coffee-drinking fiend. Once, it nearly drove me over the edge. We were in the hospital and I was laboring to bring forth our youngest son. My husband would periodically leave the room and return with a large Styrofoam cup of coffee. Before long, the window ledge of the birthing room was littered with coffee cups - some were not even empty. Finally, I could take it no more. I told him in no uncertain terms that if he brought one more cup of coffee into the room, we were kaput...finis....over. Call it the mad ravings of a woman crazed with pain because undoubtedly that is what is was. In retrospect, and without the pain, I realize my hubby was probably nervous or antsy or both and was going to get the coffee as a way to help pass the time. And what more acceptable way to pass time in America is there if it is not to drink a cup of coffee or go get a cup of coffee or actually brew the coffee itself. Coffee is as American as hot dogs, apple pie, and...... well, you know the rest of the jingle.
Much to my chagrin, I have found this phenomenon has found its way into my own beloved contemporary romantic fiction. Romance novels are not immune to the coffee-drinking sickness that pervades our society. Brewing a cup of coffee, or offering a cup of coffee to someone in their time of need, has become de rigeur for many of the characters in romance novels. If you have nothing else to fill a dead space in a story, have the characters brew a cup of coffee. I think it's especially romantic when the hero is the one doing the brewing - of the coffee I mean. When authors are doing the synopses or outlines for their stories, I have begun to wonder if they think they must pencil in something to the effect of: "Have characters drink umpteen cups of coffee and brew nearly as many".
In a way, coffee drinking in romantic fiction is much like real life. Many people take coffee breaks. What I have noticed is every time there is a break in the action of a story, somebody brings out the coffee pot. It is a panacea for plot related ills. If all else fails, have the characters spend a little time drinking a cup of coffee.
I noticed there was a lot of coffee drinking going on in a book I read recently, so I decided to conduct an informal experiment. I decided to stick little pieces of yellow legal pad paper between pages where there was some Java joltin' going on. When I finished reading the book, it scarce resembled a book anymore. With all the yellow pieces of paper sticking out of it, it resembled one of my son's arts projects particularly the kind where I have absolutely no idea what it is supposed to be. Similarly, I asked myself what did I just read? Was it a romance novel or a subliminal treatise on the proper uses of coffee.
Maybe I could take the coffee drinking epidemic in contemporary romance novels a little more in stride if the coffee drinking was not used so inappropriately. In another book I read recently, the hero and heroine for various reasons had had an emotionally exhausting day. When he drops her off at her apartment at midnight, she invites him up for coffee so he can have a chance to relax. Coffee helping someone relax - duh? Personally, if I were going to invite the man of my dreams up to my apartment, I would offer him something a little more romantic than coffee. Wine or brandy would be more the thing and could quite possibly have the desired relaxing effect and who knows what could happen from there....
Then there was the book where the heroine was in labor and several people kept giving the hero cups of coffee to help him stay calm. Apparently, he was pacing the floor. Well, is it any wonder he was pacing the floor? How about the book where the hero had been bustin' broncs all day? He comes and sits on the porch to relax and unwind at the end of his exhausting work day. Someone promptly brings him out a cup of coffee. Maybe for some people, coffee is relaxing, but I don't see how it could be with all that caffeine in it. I would imagine a day spent bustin' broncs would be a lot like doing a hard aerobics class. I would want something refreshing like a cold drink of water. Not this hero, he drank his coffee like the man he was!
Coffee drinking in romance novels is pervasive - too pervasive for my tastes - no pun intended! I guess it could best be described as the drink of choice among many of my beloved characters. It is also rapidly becoming a catchall device. When there is nothing else for the characters to do have them drink coffee. Hey, we're talking romance here. How about a little kissing instead? It's healthier than the caffeine anyway.
All I know for sure is, if I was to invite a good-looking man up to my apartment (I can dream. Can't I?), I sure as heck would not be offering him coffee.
I guess we all have our pet peeves not only with life, but also with our romance novels. This happens to be one of mine. Do any of you out there have your own plot pet peeves? I'd like to open this discussion up to all of you out there and see how many irritating plot devices we can come up with.
Romance and the Reasonable Person:
Another very talented writer at All About Romance is Marianne Stillings, who is both reviewer and acting review editor. She and I were talking the other day about a type of romance heroine closely related to the too stupid to live heroine - they are cousins and likely sisters. I'll let Marianne explain:
The scene: Feisty Darcy Décolletage (with a name like that, she has to be feisty) is on the noon stage to Godforsaken, Texas when, suddenly, the coach is surrounded by seven thousand banditos, all with their handkerchiefs pulled up over their noses and their pistols drawn and smokin'. The passengers, an elderly woman holding a shivering one-eyed dog, a drunken doctor, a minister who has lost his faith, a cowardly ex-lawman, a heart-of-gold former prostitute, a spinster school-marm, a kid with a beat-up harmonica, a young widow holding a single-toothed infant, a banker with an overstuffed suitcase he won't let anybody else touch, a scruffy-bearded stagecoach driver, and Darcy (okay, it's a crowded noon stage) are all ordered to step down. With a bazillion guns pointed directly at them, these nervous folks are ordered to give up all their valuables. They all do - plink, thud, thunk, tinkle - including the kid (they were all hoping he'd choke on that harmonica, but this works), except for our Darcy.
Defiantly she stands, breasts thrust out proudly, chin up, shoulders squared, leetle red curls escaping adorably from her bonnet, a two-shot Derringer clutched in her dainty palm. She presses her reticule to her shade-too-tight bodice. With the purtiest pond-moss green eyes you've ever seen, she boldly stares directly into the dark and sultry gaze of the head bandito, José Jandsome. "My dead mother's diamond tiara, emerald choker, and ruby pendant - along with various assorted pearl and gold items - plus $56,973.52 in cash are all I have left of my mother! I will not simply hand it all over to you, you, you, ruffians!" she snaps, stamping her adorable little foot as she points the Derringer at the broadly muscled chest of her tall assailant, while the other 6,999 ruffians stare hungrily at her with drool running down their chins and lust shining in their unnoteworthy brown eyes.
At this point, I have to ask myself: Is this the behavior of a reasonable person? I mean, feisty is one thing, but outright stupidity is something else entirely, and I don't "do" stupid. If a heroine exhibits moronic behavior at any point in a story, the author has lost me. I'll put the book down and I won't pick it up again.
Why? Here's why.
Years ago, I learned from a legal-beagle friend of mine that there is a term used in the courts by which points of law are judged. In an instance where no precedent has been set, a generic reasonable person is used as a guideline for determining rational vs. irrational behaviors. Given the circumstances, did the defendant behave as might a reasonable person? Might a reasonable person respond to attack or whatever, in such-and-such away? Is this how a reasonable person would behave? I took this term to heart and have applied it to individual and group behaviors ever since (including my own on occasion, PMS notwithstanding). Taking this term one step further, you can see how the actions of a reasonable person can easily be applied to heroines in Romance (or any other kind of) novels to add to, or detract from, credibility.
Nothing is more exasperating than coming up against a character who acts like an idiot (like our Darcy) in the face of extreme danger. I have read these situations over and over again, but not by the same author twice, I'll tell ya! Once bitten, and all that. Most often, moronic behavior is exhibited by a heroine simply to put her character in danger, or the-right-place-at-the-right-time, or the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time, et cetera, et cetera. Such ploys insult my intelligence, detract from the plot, and flat out anger me.
Nothing is more irritating than watching our supposedly intelligent leading lady do something so off the wall, the reader goes "Huh?". Exceptions to this are the Occasional-Lapse-In-Judgement Malady, or the What-I-Did-For-Love Anomaly. Nay, acting unreasonably is more closely akin to the Too-Stoopid-To-Live Syndrome which is the bane of Romance readers. If a character falls victim to an occasional lapse in judgement, the foreshadowing had better have been there to set me up to expect it. Otherwise, the action is irrational given all I know about the heroine, and I'm pulled out of the story and left to ponder just what in the world was that woman thinking doing that dumb thingee she did?
In a novel, the author is our only source of information about our heroine- a character witness if you will. The author feeds us facts and data about a person using conversations, private thoughts, scenes between characters who discuss the heroine, and by this we learn what to expect from her. It's jolting to suddenly have the heroine (or anyone) do something so dumb, you just want to throw the book at a wall (aka, Wall Banging). Note: I am not a Wall Banger, however. I was raised to believe that books are Sacred Things and should not be folded, spindled, mutilated, written in, on, upon, left out in the rain so the pages curl up, or chewed. So, even though neither of my parents is around to punish me any longer, I still cannot bring myself to abuse even an awful book. But, I digress.
Ever read a book and said to yourself: This is so bad! Hell, I could write a better book than this! Well, you might be able to, then again, you might not. Writing is hard, even bad writing. Pulling a plot out of thin air and putting the words to paper and making it all click is not easy and I admire anybody who can do it, and that, is a fact. However, a book is a partnership between the author and the reader. I'm spending money out of pocket and hours of my life to read what an author has written. I want a good story, honest characters, a fair return for my time. I don't deserve to be cheated, and that's how I feel if my partner-author does a "Darcy" on me. I can't get past it; the plot ceases to be of interest to me, the rest of the story is based on a hokey premise, and I put the book down. Odds are, I will be very cautious about reading that author again. Why? Because I am a reasonable person.
So, what happens to Darcy and José? Well, he says to her, in a voice low and sexy, "Leetle one, jue are so feisty. I hate feisty, but I chure like moaney." He shoots her with his .45, grabs her reticule, mounts his stallion, Diablow, to head for the heels.
Darcy falls into the arms of the (did I forget to mention handsome?) recovering alcoholic doctor, who immediately applies direct pressure to her wounded breast, urrr, chest. The banker, stagecoach driver, and former minister are all gunned down (they had Expendable Characters written all over them). The lawman gets back his guts and his guns and shoots José and most of the fleeing banditos while making eyes at the lovely young widow.
The one-eyed dog attaches his teeth to José's rump while the baby starts to scream bloody murder and drools all over the fallen banker. The kid retrieves his harmonica and strikes up "Sweet Betsy from Pike," while the old lady climbs up and takes the reins, yelling for everybody to Get back on board, them damn Yankees is comin'! As a last act of his forgotten faith, the minister absolves the reformed prostitute of her sins, marries Darcy and the Doctor (I smell sequel!); the lawman marries the pretty widow and adopts the kid with the harmonica.
The spinster school-marm (one hot mama under that black dress, and the closet-heroine of our story), grabs Darcy's forgotten reticule in one hand, the banker's suitcase in the other, knocks the irritating little one-eyed dog off the hunky badman's tightly fitting Levi'd rump, jumps on Diablow behind José, and the two of them ride off into the sunset to live richly, and lustily, ever after.
See what I mean? All the actions of predictable, rational, reasonable people.
More on Pet Peeves:
Both Anne and Marianne have hit upon devices used in romance novels that which they find annoying. I'm going to open up the message board to find out which devices are your major pet peeves - we'll save the discussion on baby books for a further issue since we just discussed it last time. I've just got one to add myself, and it's a simple three word phrase that I've read in 398 of the 400 romances I've read in the past 500 years: "flat male nipple".
Publishing: The Biz
It seems appropriate that we should talk about the publishing industry since we are talking about pet peeves. I have a Readers on Publishers page, and have talked about publishers in several past issues of the column, and have published a couple of author segments (Barbara Samuel and Katherine Deauxville) on publishing. The last big discussion on publishing was in October of last year.
Last week I received a post from Steven Zacharius of Kensington Publishing (Zebra, Pinnacle, Kensington). I thought I would share it with you and then talk about some publishing-related issues on my mind, then let you take the floor. Here's what he had to say, apparently about something he read here:
I read some of the letters posted on your webstite with great interest. And by the way, as far as I can remember, I don't think I've received more than one letter from anybody complaining about our cover prices in the last six months.
Six years ago, Zebra conducted an experiment. We lowered the prices on our bestselling lead romances by 1.00. All of the 6.99 books became 5.99 and the 5.99 books became 4.99. We did this to test exactly what your readers were complaining about. What happened was rather surprising to us. We didn't receive bigger orders from the book buyers and customers didn't purchase any more books by those authors. All told, it cost us over a million dollars in revenue with nothing to show for it. The test lasted over six months.
The stores do not want to put out lower priced books because their space is expensive. If they can put in a book by a bestselling author that can generate 6.99, why put in a book for 4.99? Contrary to what one your readers said, the publishers do have to continue forcing out these huge backlists of books by the bestsellers in order to recover their money that they have invested in these authors. Keep in mind that these authors get advances in the range of $500,000 to $2,000,000 and in some cases, even higher.
Zebra continues to publish more books by new authors than any other publisher in the historical romance genre. Many of our Splendor romances, formerly Lovegrams, are by new authors. We also acquire many new Regency authors as well.
As far as the comment about paper prices coming down, this is not true. Groundwood prices went up over 50% the past couple of years. For your information, paper makes up about 50% of the cost of printing the book. There are slight fluctuations in paper prices where they go up and then come down slightly but the overall trend is still upwards.
Rather than talking specifically about Kensington's experience, I'd like to talk about some of the issues raised by Mr. Zacharius in general terms, and to add some issues to the mix. If lead authors are indeed earning half a million to two million dollar advances for their books, it's no wonder such long-time favorites such as Johanna Lindsey, Julie Garwood, and Judith McNaught are no longer published in paperback!
While it is a sign of respectibility for an author to be published in hardcover (indeed, many mainstream publications only review hardcover releases), romances readers tend to be "bulk buyers"; we buy many books at a time, rarely just one. For the price of one hardcover romance, we could buy three or maybe four paperbacks.
Which brings me to another topic - if you buy a hardcover release, are you harder to satisfy than if you buy a paperback? As a reviewer I am often asked to review hardcover releases. Now, I have a hard time saying any book is worth $25.00, and there are those authors whom I am too impatient to wait until their books are re-released in paperback, but where do I, or you, draw the line? Does a book have to be three times as good as a paperback for it to be worth hardcover price? Obviously not. But, if I review a hardcover, at what point should I recommend the reader go out and spend full price (leaving out book club deals, 20% discounts, and Sam's for the moment) rather than recommending they wait six months to a year for the paperback? This issue, btw, doesn't come up at Newsweek or Entertainment Weekly, because they only review hardcover releases, but it comes up at AAR often.
Authors published in hardcover are supposed to be the best the genre has to offer. In fact, are they? Do some of them "earn" the right to be published in hardcover about the same time as they run out of steam? Do you hold such authors to a higher standard than you do authors published in paperback?
Questions to Ponder:
It's time to pose this issue's questions for the message board.
The Duke of Slut: What do you think about the hero as slut? Did Doug's question ring true for you? How about Jo's answer? Do you love this type of hero? Are you one of those who enjoys romances where the hero is a virgin?
Coffee, Reasonable Behavior, and Other Pet Peeves: Anne and Marianne did a great job on their segments, didn't they? Have you noticed coffee as a panacea in contemporary romance (it also fits westerns, I think)? What about the theory of reasonable behavior? I think I can put up with a little more than Marianne can, but then, there's that old flat male nipple thing. What are your pet peeves (excluding baby books)?
Publishing - The Biz: Let's talk about the price of romance - paperbacks, hardbacks. Do you hold authors published in hardcover to a higher standard of quality? We can get into the dwindling mid-list or lead author re-issue discussion as well. Any comments in particular about Mr. Zacharius' letter?
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