Issue #55 (July 15, 1998)
And the Winner Is!
Congratulations to Doris Riley for winning in this year's Purple Prose Parody Contest! Her middle-aged lovers putting the spice back in their love life by playacting "the queen and her knight" began with the following poem, and just got better and better:
The king was in the counting house, counting out his money,
The queen was in her parlor, counting all her honeys.
She singled out the only man in mail.
For it was he, she intended to nail.
Author Marsha Canham, who won last year's contest, had this to say about Doris' entry:
"As the proud winner of the 1st Purple Prose Parody Contest, I must say all of this year's entries were a blast. Kate Smith's throbbing manroot (a word that always brings to mind a carrot-shaped organ with little hairy roots growing out the bottom) combined the best of two clichés, 'while the wand of passion' and the heroine with her eyes lolling back in her head made me LOL.
"But the best laughs came with Doris Riley and her steely knight. Starting with the poem, which was priceless, it progressed through smiles, chuckles, and outright laffs. His salient manliness, his turgid weeping tumescence were matched by the majestic heroine's coral tips of volcanic desire and tiny urn of love. There was even the right sprinkling of anachronisms in the couple's speech to add a subtle dig at some of the jarring discrepancies in published books. In all, the winning entry, in my humble opinion."
Several readers wrote in to say they had never laughed so hard a a love scene before, and one reader who shall remain nameless, wrote, "I can relate to the premise of make believe and having fun with it. I thought I'd die laughing at the end of it. Sounded so damn familiar."
Doris' entry was both inventive and hilarious, and I particularly enjoyed the Queen's sagging chest and the Knight's manly odor, but some readers preferred a more straightforward approach. The first runner-up was Lynnmarie Kill, whose prose dripped of purple. From the names of her characters, Richard Headstrong, Lord of Hardrock Manor, and Virginia Wunnsanite (say her last name out loud, I dare you!), to the size of his manliness, to the state of her nether regions, this parody made a strong second-place showing.
Tied for third place were Catherine Asaro's satirical parody The Tale of RoboRock and Sweet Blossom and Kate Smith's traditional entry starring Angelica and Raphael. Kate Smith deserves special mention for including in her parody one of my favorite overused silly sex phrases - flat male nipple.
If you haven't yet read this year's entries, I strongly encourage you to do so. Now that Doris knows she has won the contest, I'll be looking forward to her response, and which book she will choose as her prize for this distinction.
Every entrant in the contest should be congratulated for their efforts. Each parody was suitably purple, and many had me laughing so hard I nearly cried. And, I was not alone; every reader who voted indicated this contest was loads of fun, and they look forward, as I do, to next year's contest. Long live purple prose!
Here are additional reader comments I received with the votes. Keep in mind that many who voted simply stated their choice and made no comments at all:
Finally, I didn't receive any hate mail for running the contest as I did last year, and considering that there were nearly two thousand "hits" to the contest page, I'm happily surprised. Last year, you might recall, I heard from some readers who felt I was "putting down" the genre and encouraging self loathing by asking us to look and laugh at some of the excesses of romance writing. I hope everyone understands the underlying reasons for this contest. Because romance readers feel persecuted in general, many of us, myself included at times, feel indignant toward any sort of criticism of the genre. We've all seen television shows where love scenes are read in mocking tones. That is offensive to be sure. But we must counter our righteous indignation with a little self-levity. Who better than those of us who have read hundreds of romances to poke a little fun at what we love?
Villains. . . Heroes:
We've been talking about morally ambiguous behavior in romance characters for some time now, and with my last column, we actually began the task of creating a list of villains who were transformed into heroic characters. To recap, here's what that list looks like so far (I'm excluding books with transformed villains which received a negative response):
Because both versions of The Rake are considered among the finest romances around, I asked Mary Jo Putney to talk briefly about transforming the villain into the hero and having it work. Here's what she had to say:
"I think the key to transforming a villain into a hero is - pain. If the villainous character shows signs of having suffered greatly, he becomes intriguing. What made him this way? What might he become if not driven by misery? How can he be healed? These questions feed very directly into a lot of female fantasies - the ability to take a wounded alpha wolf and turn him into our alpha wolf in a much improved model. (It also helps, of course, if the villain is sexy and good-looking!)
"Another real plus is if the villain has shown flashes of humor and/or unexpected decency - enough to hint that there is more to him than bad behavior. When I invented Reggie Davenport in The Diabolical Baron, I intended him to be a simple cardboard jerk, not evil but with no redeeming qualities. Then, in the last scene of the book, he showed surprising humor and philosophical resignation, and he became three dimensional in my mind. When several friends said they were intrigued by him, I started to play with the idea of giving him his own book, and it dawned on me that his rotten behavior came when he'd been drinking, which was almost all the time. Since I had a powerful interest in addiction and recovery, the rest is history - and The Rake.
"I think it's very hard to redeem a villain who is guilty of petty, mean-spirited behavior, because a hero needs to have, obviously, a heroic dimension. Pettiness makes him look like a man with a small soul. Even in this case, though, it's sometimes possible to give explanations later that make despicable behavior more understandable. Not easy, though.
"The best transformation for a character who was truly bad is to subject him to a terrible ordeal that becomes a kind of symbolic punishment for his past, as well as making it believable that he can become a better, more admirable man. Patricia Veryan did this very well in one of her series when a villainous character who appeared regularly was shown here and there to have better qualities, such as loving his horse. In The Dedicated Villain, he becomes the hero, and has to endure a whole lot. At the end, if I recall correctly, he is at the altar with the heroine, wearing a dashing eye patch as a result of all he has suffered and sacrificed during the book. It works!"
Patricia Veryan's series was mentioned not only by Mary Jo, but by several readers. According to Louise, Veryan's six-book Golden Chronicles series showcases "Roland Matthieson is a villain chasing the heroes and heroines of the other books in order to obtain the treasure gathered by Prince Charles for the Jacobite Uprising. In the sixth book, he is still chasing the treasure, but when he finds it, he also meets his heroine. The internal conflict between what he was and what he must do to save his love earned this book the five star classic status from Romantic Times. I still reread this one over and over." Ann adds, "One of the best examples of a redeemed villain, IMHO, is Roly . In the first book of the series, Roly tries to force the heroine to marry him, and delivers the hero to other bad guys - not hero material. He does other not-so-nice things throughout the 6 books. By the last book, though, he is the best hero of the series. Ms. Veryan does an amazing job of showing how Roly became the man he was, and how he becomes willing to sacrifice everything for the heroine. By the end, I loved Roly, too!"
Loretta Chase is another author whom readers believe has handled the difficult process of transforming a villain into a heroic character. Rachelle writes that, "In The Lion's Daughter, the villain was a prince in the Ottoman Empire and had a very Byzantine way of doing things - assassination, revenge - anything to capture the heroine. In Captives of the Night, he has become the Comte d'Esmond, works for the British Home Office, and pursues (with enough sexual tension to light the pages on fire!) the artist heroine Leila. Great book and great handling of a character. D'Esmond does not lose his Byzantine ways - he just uses them for 'good' rather than for personal gain." Andrea echoes how well Chase transformed the villain to hero: "Ismael fancies himself in love with the heroine in Lion and goes so far as to kidnap her when she rejects his advances. In Captives he becomes the hero and is quite believable as a reformed character. His past does come back to haunt him though. Both books are good reads."
Darlene writes that the "villain to hero story line is one of my favorites! I love the idea that there is the possibility of 'redemption' for all of us." She is "truly in awe when an author can pull off such a transformation! A couple of my favorite examples are:
If you are like Darlene and you enjoy this type of romance, you've now got quite a nice little list for your bookstore haunts.
The Proverbial Light Bulb That Went Off!
Readers of this column over the past couple of years will know that I've never been able to enjoy Regency Romances. Readers of my AAR Reviews might have noticed that recently I've had a change of heart. For whatever reason, I picked up An Inconvenient Wife by Patricia Oliver, read it, and didn't get that nagging feeling in the back of my head that I would have preferred the book as an historical. It was as if a light bulb had gone off in my head - suddenly, I got Regencies.
Interestingly enough, shortly thereafter, I heard from a Regency Romance lover who felt AAR had been unfair to Regencies in the past. Though I explained that I try to keep an open mind, I admitted I had thought Regencies were rather like little-old-lady books. Because I try to present both sides of an issue, I'd talked to Regency authors and readers, even had Regency Lover Karen Wheless write a piece for the site on Regencies to try to convince those of us who didn't like them or were afraid to try them that we should take the plunge.
Well, I've taken it, and while the two books I read following Wife didn't do the trick, I've glommed several other Regencies, including an entire stack of Mary Balogh's, which I began glomming when I interviewed her earlier in the year.
It's very exciting to discover a whole new arena in which to focus one's attention, and I plan to read many Regency Romances in the next few months. They are definitely not little-old-lady books. The emphasis on dialogue and the mannered style of writing doesn't exactly hit you over the head, but, in Wife, at least, the sort of foppish comments I'd feared Regencies would be littered with were all within character. The gentleman exclaiming "farradiddle" was a fop; when he said it, I didn't groan. Instead, I laughed, which I believe was the author's intent. The characters did not all sit around the drawing room taking tea and playing whist either.
If you are like I was and think Regencies are not for you, or are a convert (recent or otherwise), I'd like to hear from you when it's time to post to the message board.
(To see a listing of Reader's Top Ten Regencies, please click here.)
Stuck in the Middle:
Last week I started two books which seemed to have keeper stamped all over them. You know that feeling, don't you? When you start a book and the first couple of hundred pages fly by in a whirl and you're excited and loving it. . .and then things come to a screeching halt?
Both books had inventive plots and interesting characters. There were different reasons why their middles sagged. One book I'm so disappointed in that I simply put it down when I felt it ran out of steam. I haven't been able to get back to it since. The other I continued to read for another hundred pages or so when I finally realized it had long since gone bad. I persevered, however, gritted my teeth, and slogged through the rest of it. Turns out that by the time I'd realized I was bored silly, it was almost the end of sag time and back to some pretty decent stuff. But not nearly enough to engage me again. The book ended as a disappointment.
What is it about sagging middles? I know this is a common enough problem for writers that "sagging middles" is an actual term used to describe it. Why is it that some books which could be absolute gems turn into so-so, or worse, reads?
Is it the padding thing? That thing authors do to make a 300 page book into a 350 page book? Is it a run-out-of-steam thing that authors encounter? Is it an inventive thing gone bad when an author has an idea for a final subplot to add in? Let's talk about it when it's time to post to the message board.
Rifs on Political Correctness:
As many of you are aware, there is an entire section here at All About Romance for Rifs on Political Correctness, which grew out of discussion last summer about Christina Dodd's A Well Pleasured Lady. This past week on my listserv for Prodigy, the whole issue of rape versus forced seduction was discussed again. The comments reminded me that we started discussing p.c. in this column not too long ago ourselves.
Back in April, Dodd's A Well Favored Gentleman sparked my interest in the topic again and I opened the message board to discussion on either or both books, and political correctness in general. Here's what readers had to say:
Karen wrote that political correctness may be an easy out for an author. She characterized political correctness as a form of stereotyping: "Stereotyped characters are less satisfying than when an author tries to instill depth and complexity into their characters. Political Correctness is also easy and can be a type of stereotyping. If the book is a historical, the attitudes expressed should be reflective of the time period. If a character is to be believable going against the attitudes of that time period, then the consequences of doing that need to be addressed. Your characters can be enlightened for their times, but they also need to be real."
While Karen's remarks about about political correctness in general, most of the comments were about sex and political correctness - the forced seduction versus rape conundrum. Maggie wrote, "I think that authors tread dangerous waters with the forced seduction plot device - which in itself is an oxymoron. 'Force' means 'use of physical power or violence.' Power/violence to seduce? Is it any different to the contemporary issue of date rape? The attraction is there and is mutual. But in the final analysis, the woman says no and the guy 'forces' it anyway. Heaven forbid if legal beagles hold up either of the two Dodd books as a legal defense by saying this it is written by women for women and it reflect what women want. Do readers rationalize that Whitney was not raped by Clayton (Judith McNaught's Whitney, My Love)? To me, that was rape regardless of his remorse. And yet on the other hand, I could never qualify that Brandon raped Heather (Kathleen Woodiwiss' The Flame & the Flower) - too many grey issues, such as his lack of intent and her state of mind."
As I indicated last year when these issues first arose, I think it is vital to separate reality from fantasy. Indeed, a number of women who were the victims of rape have indicated that this is a necessary distinction. I subscribe to the belief that such fantasies are about being forced to accept pleasure, which is a very different thing than some masochistic urge to be violated, to have violence done to you. Women are raised with a puritanical "sex is dirty" ethic. But what if it is taken out of our hands? What if a man takes it out of our hands and gives us pleasure? We didn't ask for it, we were good girls who said no. And yet, he does it anyway. In no way am I saying this is the reality of rape. In real life there is no such thing as forced seduction. When a woman says no in real life, that means no, because in real life, rape is about violence and power. Rape in real life involves no pleasure for the woman.
But in our fantasies, there are no laws and no politics. Last year a reader wrote, "Women are taught to be caretakers. And we all know how hard it is for some of us to take care of ourselves. This can spill over into our sexual relationships, too. We worry about our partner's pleasure and have trouble accepting our right to our own. So the fantasy of a strong lover forcing us to be pleasured in spite of ourselves is an appealing one. We don't have to feel guilty for needing more than a man does to be satisfied. We are forced to lie there and take it until we can't take it anymore. Tie me up and kill me with pleasure. There's nothing I can do about it. I think this is the appeal of the forced seduction."
In A Well Pleasured Lady, the hero uses his strength to overpower the heroine, resulting in one of the most erotic love scenes I've ever read. In A Well Favored Gentleman, the hero makes love to the heroine in a drugged state after she has injured herself and taken an opiate for the pain. He is fully aware of what she's done because he's been spying on her. Some readers found this objectionable; others didn't.
Emily wrote that the scene from AWFG didn't really bother her because Dodd let the readers "inside the heroine's head before that scene and you find out she is interested in the hero and mostly likes him. You've been inside the hero's head for most of the story up until the 'rape' scene, and you know he is very interested in the heroine. He initiates things while she's asleep, which isn't exactly gentlemanly, but. . . If the heroine had been awake, she would have consented (this is the sort of thing where the author is depending on previous details). The hero does do something unethical, by mucking around with the heroine's mind so she isn't quite sure whether she had sex with him or not, and by constantly making her dream of him. That I don't like. Mind-rape is worse than a true rape, because at least with a real rape you know what happened. But the hero had reasons for his behavior, and he saw that he wasn't exactly playing on the light side of the Force. I don't think he'll do it again."
On the other hand, Kate finds forced seduction/rape scenes objectionable. Regarding AWPL, she wrote, "I always have a problem with the hero forcing the heroine like she doesn't know her own mind. I found Sebastian to be a bully. Forced sex is not romantic to me, especially when the author is graphic enough to discuss the "burning" or discomfort from it and then turn it around so that she loves it! I hate the 'being-forced-to-marry-him' story line. Just once, I'd like to see the heroine force him to marry her! But then again, those women are always the villains of the story. As for Ian's actions in AWFG. I didn't quite understand why he did it as he never mentioned it. It didn't become part of the story like I thought it would. I guess readers might be less likely to be upset by that because he wasn't rough with her like Sebastian was with Mary. I guess I can't get into the whole fantasy thing. To me, rape (and that's what it is, the heroine is still saying no, whether or not she ends up liking it doesn't really matter) is simply not romantic and men like Sebastian deserve a good cosh on the head!
Another reader enjoyed both Dodd books in question, although she didn't really care for the scenes we are discussing. She identifies rape scenes by Catherine Coulter, Bertrice Small, and Rosemary Rogers as "truly horrific", and I tend to agree, at least about Coulter. Though she's written five books which are Desert Isle Keepers for me, I haven't picked up a Coulter medieval in two years because the rapist hero from Chandra becomes the hero in Fire Song. Unlike Sebastian from AWPL whom I believe could only reach Mary through forced seduction, Graelam de Morton from Chandra brutally rapes a servant in order to frighten Chandra. He has the mind of a rapist.
Again, please understand that I am not talking about real life. If any man ever forced me to do anything - sexual or otherwise - that would be unforgivable. But in a romance novel, we are talking about fiction and fantasy. In the end, did I come to love the hero? Yes, I came to love Sebastian, but I never felt anything less than seething hatred for Graelem. It depends. . .on the skill of the author in creating characters I can care about.
The reader who identified certain scenes as horrific went on to say, "Give me Sebastian Durrant over Steve Morgan. I'll hit Steve Morgan with my pan any time. That guy is a pure macho garbage, getting into bed with every silly girl he could get his hands on. And he is a classic hero, according to some. And some of the best selling earlier Coulters have really hateful heroes too. My point is I don't really get disgusted by the heroes in the two Dodd books. To be honest, I doubt any other men in their time would behave differently, maybe worse. These guys redeem themselves by truly loving the heroines. I much prefer them than to a man who is darned good in bed (and persuasive too) but otherwise treats the heroine like trash. Books by Elizabeth Lowell, Catherine Coulter, Rosemary Rogers have these sort of Class A bastards. Anyone read "Fire Song" by Catherine Coulter? I tell you if that guy is my son he's in for lifelong detention. And Sweet Savage love by Rosemary Rogers is my first book I happily throw into the recycling bin."
I've added a new page to Rifs on Political Correctness called New Reader Rifs on Political Correctness and have included a lengthy rant I received awhile ago. I am hoping to add to this new page with what you all post to the message board. Please check out this rant; there is a link directly back to the column from there.
The Message Board:
It's time to post to the message board again. Here are the questions I'd like you to consider responding to:
The Purple Prose Parody - Did you correctly pick this year's winner? Do you like this yearly contest or do you think it is demeaning to the genre? Are there some silly sex phrases you've been wanting to share?
Villains. . .Heroes - Are there some other good romances out there not on our list of villains who have become heroes? What did you think of Mary Jo's comments? Anyone willing to write a Desert Isle Keeper Review of the Veryan series?
Regency Romance - Do you love Regency Romance? Do you hate Regency Romance? Are you afraid of Regency Romance? Are you a longtime Regency reader or recent convert? I'd like to hear from you regardless of your stand.
Stuck in the Middle - Which books started out wonderfully for you only to sag in the middle? What do you think causes this phenomenon?
Rifs on Political Correctness - I'd like to jump-start this feature after it has lay dormant for quite a long time. Please share your views on p.c. in general - anachronistic behavior in an historical, for instance. And, do you think writing p.c. characters are another form of stereotyping, an easy out for the author? Do you separate reality from fantasy, fact from fiction? Is there a difference in a romance novel between forced seduction and rape? Are you like me in that there some books you've read that have had forced sex that have worked and others that haven't worked?