Issue #50 (April 15, 1998)
Laurie's News & Views is celebrating its fiftieth issue with this column, which seems like a landmark event to me. I'd like to thank everyone who has encouraged me and participated along the way, including my old friends at The Romance Reader, especially Leslie McClain and Dede Anderson. It was Leslie who suggested this column over two years ago and Dede who encouraged me to start my own web site. While Dede and I have since come to a parting of the ways, she will always have my gratitude for spurring the start of this site.
Speaking of Dede and our parting of the ways, reader Joan Towey sent me a guest column last week which you'll find below. She refers to Issue 31 of LN&V, written last summer, which dealt with political correctness. The segment of that column written by Lesley Lawrence on perceived anti-semitism was the segment which led me to leave The Romance Reader. It is one of several topics Joan talks about in her excellent guest segment. I'll jump in at its conclusions to give my own take on the topics she raises, and then you can post your own ideas to the message board at the end of the column.
Reader Joan Towey Rambles about Romance:
What do Romance Readers Want, Anyway?
Or, what do women want anyway, I suppose it can be asked. For some time now, I've been reading Laurie's columns, in all of her incarnations, and our reactions and responses to them. I think that most of our discussions can be boiled down to this one question: What do we want? I'm sure it's not really the old whore-madonna syndrome, because we all know that most women have a bit of both in our souls. More likely, however, it involves what is our fantasy life like and how it affects our taste in escapist fiction.
In an earlier column, one of Laurie's readers suggested we could be categorized by type: The Julie Garwood fan, the Laura Kinsale fan and the Judith McNaught fan. As a huge fan of all three, I respectfully disagree. I think that the spirit the author finds us on that day and time determines what we like to read.. For example, my mother hates historicals. Why? I haven't a clue (though it might have something to do with the sexual content and this from a woman with eight children, but I digress). Yet when given a shelf full of Julie Garwood's latest, she's hungering for more. I on the other hand cannot read contemporaries (especially those situated in New York) for the life of me, but when handed a book by Nora Roberts or Christina Skye, I'm satisfied for a week. Does this mean we are fickle? We don't know our own minds? No. It just means that just because I worship the ground Laura Kinsale walks on doesn't mean that I can't stand Garwood (just her American books).
So, what do women want? We want to escape in a semi-intelligent manner that we can put down when a child cries, the beeper goes off, the brief is due, or our significant other is ready to bed us. Which leads me to another question. How do romance novels affect our sex lives? I've wondered about this. How would things be different if I read only mystery novels, or heaven forbid, legal thrillers (I'm a lawyer you see).
I'm curious, I guess. Do you think about Jamie Fraser (from Diana Gabaldon's Outlander) when you make love? I don't. But I think that many men are afraid that we romance readers do this regularly. Do romance novels fill a gap for us in our sex lives? I think that the books may give us ideas about things, but they don't go that far. I'd be curious to see what you all have to say.
More on Political Correctness
Last year, one of Laurie's colleagues at The Romance Reader wrote in a column that she had read a book in which a throwaway character (literally) with a Jewish surname was treated pretty shabbily by the heroine and the author. She was somewhat insulted and I was for her as well. What's in a name and an ethnic stereotype after all? I find it a bit absurd that ethnic stereotypes exist at all in romance novels -- they're so cumbersome and embarrassing. For example, why is it that some authors always make some unnecessary remark about the the stupidity of the Irish servants in historical novels? Why do the same and other authors need to make smarmy remarks about the Irish-surnamed hero always getting the girl in contemporary novels? Is it market research or just latent prejudice?
A number of years ago, one of my favorite authors wrote a book in which our teacher heroine (with a German surname) met a guy from Puerto Rico, decided to marry him, and went down there to plan the wedding. Her parents were none too happy. Moreover, our hero (who headed a multinational corporation, btw) turned macho on her, wanting to take care of her, pay for everything and be responsible for her and everything about her. She stubbornly wanted to be responsible for herself, she stubbornly wanted to be independent, she stubbornly wanted to do things her way. Is this whole conflict as embarrassing to you as it is me? It is certainly unrealistic. Think about this: an educated billionaire businessman, a schoolteacher with the concomitant salary and an argument about who pays for what. And to top it off, ethnic stereotypes thrown in. I think if I were German or Hispanic, I'd gag. As it is, I shake my head and wonder who was the editor of this book.
Leslie recounted a story in which the heroine gets pregnant by some jerky hero who leaves her (there's a hero for you). She then marries her employer with the Semitic surname who cares for her, raises her daughter as his own and leaves her everything when he dies. Instead of mourning this lovely, caring husband of hers, she goes off in search of her one true love. She and the daughter pine away for the jerk and eventually live HEA. Boy, oh boy. Whatever happened to grieving for a man who treated you in such a way as to make him the real hero? Does this mean that according to market research (or the author's small mind) Jewish men are not heroes? Judith Krantz and Belva Plain would beg to differ.
Do any of my fellow ethnics have anything to add?
The Rising Price of Books & How to Beat It
My last topic for venting is how much of my budget has been going toward books lately. I must say, first of all, that the Web has really helped my keep the cost of my habit to a minimum because I don't blindly buy everything by a favorite author before checking it out at my favorite web sites first. I also have started haunting my county's libraries in order to find my new favorite authors' backlist. I also must recommend wholesale club stores for their deep discounts. Does anyone know what the markup is on a romance novel? I'd love to know how BJ's Wholesale Club can sell a $6.99 book for $3.49 and still make a decent profit. I think I know, don't you? (It's not volume, that's for sure.)
I live in an area where there are no used book stores that carry romance novels. Westchester County, NY, is known for its population of authors and snobbery, after all. I'd like to suggest an idea to all of you who are too thrifty to spend full price on one book when you can get lots more than one for the same amount of money. Our library has a used book shelf in which patrons can buy donated paperback novels for 25 cents. I can't tell you how many old backlist books I've been able to find by haunting this shelf and others in other libraries. All proceeds go to the library of course and donors only get a tax deduction, but hey, it works. I've found all of Brenda Joyce's Bragg family series this way as well as some of Johanna Lindsey's books from the early 1980s. There are treasures out there waiting to be found if you look. Now if only I could get my hot little hands on Mary Jo Putney's regencies.
Well, thanks for reading my ramblings. I hope I've made you think and prompt you to react one way or another. At least I didn't get started on cover models, back cover teasers, and stepbacks. That's for another person to rant about. How about you?
On What She Said:
Because I've talked so much about the three degrees of romance in issues 45 seems to have and 48, I won't comment further here. Instead, I'd like to re-focus Joan's question and ask your definition of a romance novel, possibly including what it should and/or should not be as well.
As far as political correctness goes, I am constantly fascinated by this topic, in relation to romance reading, and in society as a whole. I found the rifs on p.c. last summer/fall very interesting, in relation to the forced seduction/rape issue, stereotypes in romance, and anachronistic behavior in historical romance. Christina Dodd's A Well Pleasured Lady is what originally sparked my interest in this topic. I haven't read A Well Favored Gentleman myself, but know that there wasn't nearly the amount of ruckus raised about the seduction-while-sleeping (or was it rape?) scene. Perhaps now is the time to raise that ruckus.
In the AAR review of A Well Favored Gentleman, reviewer Marianne Stillings recounts how the hero deflowers the heroine in a drug-induced sleep. The question is not is it live or is it Memorex?, the question is if this is rape? Let's discuss this on the message board, along with p.c. in romance.
The rising price of books is something I have talked about recently, albeit more in relation to hardbacks versus paperbacks, but I too have noticed the upward creep of prices. From what I've gathered, the publishers are in trouble for a variety of reasons. One is the huge advances given to authors and/or pseudo-authors (ie, celebrities) that are never earned back in terms of sales. Another problem is that the huge bookstore chains order such a tremendous volume of books from distributors and/or publishers that the return rate is incredible. A third problem is that there are fewer distributors out there, and that they and the huge superstores are dictating what is available for sale.
Baby, Baby, Baby:
Author Carla Cassidy's segment in defense of the baby book created a quite lively discussion on the message board. Not surprising to anyone who keeps their ears open is that the majority of those who posted think it's well past time to stop the baby boom in romance publishing. Whether Internet readers accurately represent the romance-buying public is debatable because these books continue to be published (and presumably purchased) in droves. Exactly what it is about these books besides the sheer volume of them that annoy readers is extremely varied. Here are a smattering of views, followed by a follow-up by Carla Cassidy.
Heather: Enough already with these baby books. Yes, there are plenty of good romances out there with babies or kids or teenagers in the story, but isn't the main focus of a romance between the hero and the heroine, how their relationship develops, how they interact, how they solve their problems together? I have been reading romances for a good 13 years now, and have seen the romance industry grow to a wonderful genre. As secondary characters, babies are fine, but what I see as a glut of series romances with babies in them (not to mention cowboys, weddings, and brides) should be tempered with a variety of themes, not just one or two themes.
Susan: I for one don't like to read books where the heroine gets pregnant by another man and then runs to the hero for help. It seems to cheapen their love and seems to make the hero seem like he was the second choice for the heroine's affections.
Jenni: I buy certain kinds of baby books. I have definite tastes, I guess you'd say. I like books where the heroine gets pregnant and the h/h get married as a result. I like books in which the h/h get married so that one or the other can keep a child. I dislike intensely the "I gave up my baby for adoption and now I'm back five ten fifteen years later" or the "You got me pregnant five ten fifteen years ago but I never told you" story line. I'm much more likely to buy a baby book in the Silhouette Special Editions or Intimate Moments lines than I am in Silhouette Romance or Desires because when you add children to the mix I feel the longer length is necessary to really show the relationship between the h/h.
Karen: I'm not a fan of baby books. Especially in categories, the pages are limited anyway, and by adding in a baby or a pregnancy, the number of pages devoted to the relationship is limited. I feel like I've only read half a book. Plus, I find a lot of the scenarios to be very unrealistic. These are contemporary books, and yet the heroes and heroines seem surprised to find out that sex leads to babies! More importantly, I think that all of the baby books are pushing out many other contemporaries. Even my favorite authors who used to write really great books with unusual plots and characters, now are writing babies, babies, babies.
Tamera: I, personally, hate baby books, and avoid them at all cost.There is nothing romantic about children. These books portray children unrealistically and usually feel contrived. In a day and age when more couples are opting to remain childless, it blows my mind that a baby boom is ensuing in romance books. But since there are so many being published, someone must be buying them. Thus, they will continue to be published (and I will continue to avoid them).
Mrs. Giggles: As a mother of 4 and grandmother-babysitter of 6 adorable but screamy brats, I perhaps know how a trial and pleasure motherhood can be. But the reason I tend to skip Baby books is the same reason I skip many Angel books - many are just too sweet (read: icky) for my taste. Especially when the babies or children under 6 are dressed up in pink flannels and behave more like a puppy than a human. When a pregnancy is used as a reason for divorced/estranged couples or bad boy/good girl reunions, I roll my eyes up and try not to groan. I may be straying off topic here, but I must add that I am really tired of pregnant heroines hiding from the guy, or she try hiding the baby from him just because they're separated or he was drunk while they did the horizontal tango. And I'm tired also of children under 6 who suddenly speaks grown-up for one paragraph, then reverts to "goo-goo-gaga" mode for the next. Or when the two h/h just sit back and say "Aaaw, ain't that cute" when all that brat needed was a good smack (believe me, some books have children doing things no sane Mum will allow to get by unpunished).
Carole: My problem with books that incorporate babies or children is that often the premise, ie. baby being left on someone's doorstep, secret child etc... just does not ring true. Then add to that, characters referring to this baby/child who has displayed about as much personality as a turnip as "darling,sweetums" ad naseum and, well, I just suspend belief. Now after having saying that,believe it or not, I actually do like baby/kid books and will seek them out because every so often you get a good one. I like books where people find their biological clocks are turning into time bombs, I can understand that. I like books where the kids are actually given a voice in the story. Two that come to mind that I enjoyed a lot were A Cowboys Tears by Anne Mcallister and the last Mary Balogh novella.
Julie: The degree of realism has a lot to do with how much I like a baby book too. The kid has to be something other than a sugary, generic Cute Baby. My favorites are from a few years back, before babies got to be a sort of default plot device (A Rose for Maggie by Kathleen Creighton comes to mind).
(A different) Heather: I do not read a lot of category books, and I don't read them because I am sick to death of the baby angle. Sure, having a baby in a story makes for lots of filler, but I want substance. OTOH, I love it when the heroine gets pregnant at the end of the books and we find out in the epilogue what the baby was named. It sort of cements the relationship for me.
Teresa: I don't read a lot of category books, which seem to be the ones who deal the most with babies (someone can jump in and correct me if I'm wrong here) and part of the reason is that women seem to be able to conceive with no problem at all. As a woman dealing with fertility problems I can tell you this really irks me, especially as these books are set in the 90s, when 15% of couples have some problem conceiving a child. Although I'm fairly at peace with my situation, certain things can trigger my emotions, and women conceiving after one night or one or two months just grates on my nerves, especially when it seems to happen in so many of the books. That authors (or the marketing people) feel that a baby somehow solidifies a couple's relationship, makes it real. Again, I'm not meaning to offend anyone here, this is just coming from my unique perspective. But keep in mind there are a lot of women like me who might want to read category romances but don't for the same reason. My favorite book is Jo Beverley's The Shattered Rose. But, those who've read it might exclaim, "Her heroine gets pregnant!" Yes, yes she does, but not after Jo has delved deep into the issue, having the hero relate the agony both he and his wife went through so that when it was revealed that the Jehanne finally did conceive, to me it was plausible. I'm not suggesting that there shouldn't be any babies in contemporary romance, but does every heroine have to get pregnant?
Laura: As a romance reading mother of a darling one and a half year old child, I am standing up on a chair for all to see and shouting in my loudest voice for all to hear - stop with the baby romances! I love my child with all my heart and I am moved multiple times a day by the wonder of her. That does not mean that I want to read about a child in every single category that I buy. (Yes, I know that not every category has child characters, but it sure does feel like it.) Every day I am knee deep in diapers, laundry, bibs, sipper cups, toys, and toddler tantrums. The last thing I want to read about is a hero and/or heroine dealing with...diapers, laundry, bibs, sipper cups, toys, and toddler tantrums! Romances are partly an escape for me. Put simply, I'm living it; I don't want to read about it. I am certain that there are romance readers out there who disagree and that is fine. I appreciate diversity. But don't tell me that I don't understand the appeal of a baby romance because I need to hold a baby. This is a case of publishers taking a good thing - a child as a secondary character - and overdoing it. What started out as a cute and fun plot device has created a terrible backlash in me. Whenever I see the word "baby" in the title of a category romance, all systems go on alert. My perception of the baby books is that it is a marketing ploy to increase sales. I may or may not be correct but that is how I see the situation. Until I see a change in the gratuitous inclusion of characters that are under the legal voting age, I am not likely to change my opinion or my buying habits.
Tonie: I don't have children but I completely and totally agree with you, Laura! I absolutely detest all those baby books and I don't buy them. I've had it with them. I don't understand why Harlequin and Silhouette feel the word "baby" needs to be in so many of their titles. I don't buy the book if it has the word baby in the title, kids on the cover, or a story involving kids or babies! And I know I'm missing some good books because I've found that a lot of the baby titles have nothing to do with the actual story - but that's not my fault, it's the fault of the people who continue to put babies and kids on the cover and assume we want to read it. I don't find it cutesy or amusing.
Meagn: A baby is simply not conducive to romantic interludes unless it's at the sitter's house. If an infant is the result of a relationship and actually is a part of the story, that's one thing, but I personally find all of the emphasis on breeding disturbing (and the titles of some of the books I've seen make me want to heave, personally). I have never seen a relationship that did not suffer tremendously with the birth of a child.
Kristi: I grudgingly accept the premise that, for many people, the h/h having a baby together is the natural culmination of their relationship, symbolizing the love and commitment the h/h have for each other (I seem to recall one of the authors in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women discussing this). But in the past, this has just been assumed or is the epilogue of the story, not the main focus. This new trend has the pregnancy or the raising of an infant as the focus of the story, not the romance. I believe this distracts from the romance. My feelings about kids aside, I am tentatively putting forward the theory that, for me, a good romance has only 2 main characters, all others are secondary. Books with a third primary character, whether it be a baby or the "other woman/man" don't seem to satisfy.
Author Carla Cassidy: Wow, when Laurie asked me to write a column to try to explain the popularity of baby romances, I had no idea what I was getting into! I, too, am a reader who doesn't necessarily want a baby in every romance. However, as a writer, if the presence of a baby in a romance is distracting from the romance between the hero and heroine, then I'm not doing my job right. Ultimately, the books should be about the growing love between a man and a woman, and that's certainly what I hope the focus is in my books. There are times when I use kids as comic relief, as a device for furthering conflict, and certainly to please the marketing department, who insists babies sell. As a writer, I don't want the focus of my stories to be how 'cute' the kid is or how exciting it is to change diapers a hundred times a day. Been there, done that! No matter what we here on this particular link believes, the fact remains that somebody is reading these baby books, somebody is buying these books. Check out the best seller lists for category and more often than not, the title with baby in it is on the list. I will tell you this, there are times my publisher has put a title on my book to make it marketable, but that title isn't the end all and be all of what the plot is to the book. I hope as readers we don't automatically discount a book because of a title or because of a picture of a baby on the front. There are some wonderful, gripping, emotional stories being done with the marketing hooks of a baby or such in the title. That's it for now from me!
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