Issue #87 (January 15, 2000)

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The winter of 1999/2000 will go down in my book as the winter of the flu - I've been sicker than I can recall for many years. The fever lasted a full week, and the cough and fatigue are malingerers. As such, I'm really too pooped to write, and am digging into a treasure trove of goodies from friendly writers, AAR Reviewers, and ranting readers to bring you this column.

Before I do that, however, I want to raise an issue I recently came across, after reading an advance copy of Joan Johnston's The Cowboy. Johnston writes historicals, series, and single-title contemporary romance, and I've enjoyed two of her historicals (Captive and The Bridegroom). However, The Cowboy failed to engage me for a reason I've never come across in another contemporary romance - though set in modern-day Texas, it seemed literally out of time, references to Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines aside.

Even though the heroine is a modern, college-educated woman and the hero a worldly rancher, the "Hatfields & McCoys" family feud between their two families seemed old-fashioned. And, the sense of melodrama surrounding the long-suffering heroine in her efforts to protect the family honor through its ownership of the family ranch seemed out of place in a contemporary novel. This romance might well have worked had it been set in the late 1800's, but it did not work with its modern setting.

I realize my comments might be construed as if I were saying an air of melodrama is more fitting in an historical romance, but that is not my intent. My apparent belief, I now realize, is that certain story lines read as melodrama when presented in modern settings but are believable, or more believable, in historic ones. Has anyone come across this before? Think about this as you read through the rifs below on political correctness, because we often talk about romances that seem too modern for their settings, but can the reverse be true as well?

Rifs on Political Correctness:

Several weeks ago, there was a discussion on AARlist regarding political correctness in romance. Because we've had so many successful discussions on this topic in the past, I asked two of those who participated in this most recent discussion to expand their thoughts. They were author Sabrina Jeffries and AAR Reviewer Colleen McMahon.

Just yesterday I heard on the radio that children in England will no longer recite the nursery rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” Even though the rhyme was created in the 13th century and had to do only with counting sheep and their wool, educators believe it could now be considered offensive to people of color. This entire episode reminded of what happened in Washington, D.C. last year when an official was forced to resign for using the term "niggardly," meaning stingy, in public comments.

What on earth has this to do with romance novels, you ask? Plenty, particularly in relation to historical romance, when men were men, women were chattel, and those non-white or non-Christian were considered to be stupid, or non-human, or. . . well, you get the drift.

We all know that history is not pretty, and it is not always romantic. How to craft a work of fiction that stays true to the times and engenders romance is a difficult task. Some authors remain true to the times and write romances that capture the imaginations of readers. But other readers might read these same books and feel there was too much of a focus on the "warts and all" aspect of being true to the times. For these readers, such stories lack romance.

There are some authors who gloss over historical fact in a fairly deft fashion; for many readers, enough true history is included in their stories to preserve both the past and create the magic of romance. Other readers might read these same books and feel they are anachronistic - too modern for the setting of the book.

Added into the mix is the modern-day emergence of the political correctness movement, which seeks to iron-out blips in our "offense" radar. Sabrina and Colleen approached this topic very differently; I found each to be a fascinating look into this difficult topic.

Recent discussions on the AAR list about political correctness in historical romances prompted me to voice my own opinions from the standpoint of a historical author.
I won’t dwell on the aspects already discussed in other rifs - about the need for creative freedom for authors. What I want to address is the opinion of those readers who think that some authors alter historical realities-or are instructed by their publishers to do so - in order to be politically correct.

First of all, while some publishers do have a hands-on approach to their author’s books, they are usually far more interested in conflict, character development, and sizzle in the writing than they are in the history, good or bad. Believe me, if an author seems to sugarcoat history, it's by choice, not by editorial direction, at least in historicals (I can’t speak for series romance, because I’ve never written one, but I suspect it’s no different).

Keep in mind that when I say “sugarcoat,” I don’t mean “be inaccurate.” Readers do have a right to expect the heroine not to use a zipper in the Regency period or the medieval hero not to pull out a rubber condom and slip it on. Historical facts such as availability of foods or the existence of modern inventions should be accurate to the extent that the author can make them so (authors can’t be expected to know everything or be able to find out everything; I do my best, but I’m not as infallible, as I keep telling my family).

That said, however, I would point out that historical romances are fantasy. If we demand that a novel be true to the period in all respects, then we should be willing to accept constant references to the stench of open sewage in London’s streets, the lack of bathing even among the upper classes, or the poor dental practices that would have resulted in missing or rotting teeth for most of those gorgeous heroes and heroines. I doubt many of us want that level of historical accuracy.

Secondly, when it comes to historical “facts” like social attitudes of people from a particular period, we should proceed with caution - our perceptions of history are distorted in more respects than we realize. Yes, premarital sex was roundly condemned in earlier periods, as was lesbianism and women setting off to find adventure. Yet you wouldn’t know that from listening to an old seaman’s ballad like “The Handsome Cabin Boy.” It’s a story worthy of a novel - the heroine dresses as a cabin boy and goes to sea seeking adventure. The captain’s wife finds the “lad” handsome and steals a few kisses, but the captain finds out that the lad is a girl and has his way with her. The “cabin boy” has a child, all the sailors deny responsibility but find it enormously amusing, and the punch line is when the captain’s wife tells him, “My dear, I wish you joy / For it's either you or I betrayed / The handsome cabin boy.” Then everyone drinks a toast to the hapless mother.

What about the old ballad about a cuckolded husband rocking the cradle of the babe that isn’t his? Eighteenth -century ballads about girls taken in by scoundrels abound, and often the girls are left pregnant. In many of these cautionary ballads, there is far more condemnation of the seducers than of the women or their babies. And what about a bawdy ballad like “The Fair Maid of Islington” (written in 1744) where a man asks a maid how much she wants for lying with him one night, and she asks for 5 pounds? When he won’t pay her afterward, she takes him to court, claiming that he “rented” a “cellar” from her and won’t pay up. The judge ignores the man’s protest that he only put “one small pipe of wine” in it, and finds in favor of the maid!

I mention ballads because they reflect popular opinions of the times. One might argue that they concern only the lower classes, where such behavior was more “acceptable,” but in truth, there are ballads for all levels of society -“Willie of Winbury” being a notable case of a gently reared maiden being seduced by a lord, who does marry her once she is discovered pregnant. And adultery abounds in ballads, no matter the class.

Then there are characters like Harriett Smith in Jane Austen’s Emma. The girl is illegitimate, yet Emma has no qualms about befriending her or trying to match her up with respectable men. Clearly, sexual lapses weren’t as "unusual" as we think. We’re programmed to think they were, because until recently that helped to maintain the status quo. As a former professor of English, I can assure you that what we are told is a "classic" is extremely arbitrary and leaves out plenty of dynamic and wonderful literature written by women and other races. Our literature has been censored for centuries, and not by the popular reader either, but by stuffy academics, mostly white males (I realize that’s a reverse discrimination, but it’s true nonetheless).

Readers also sometimes decry the “unrealistic” emphasis on heroines who yearn for a profession in earlier historical periods. Yet the reality is that plenty of our foremothers had “modern” ideas about a woman’s place. We sometimes hear about the outspoken reformers like Elizabeth Fry and Hannah More. A few of us know of Mary Wollstonecraft (the mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley), who wrote, “Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath” in her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792. But there were others we never hear about. Did you know that John Stuart Mill claimed that a woman named Harriet Taylor wrote half of all his books and articles, even though she wouldn’t take credit for them? Most of us have heard of John Stuart Mills. Have you ever heard of Harriet Taylor?

And consider Elizabeth Inchbald, actress and playwright during the Regency. She wanted to go on the stage, especially after her brother did. When his fellow actor, John Inchbald, courted her, she responded to Inchbald’s proposal of marriage with these words, "In spite of your eloquent pen, matrimony still appears to me with less charms than terrors: the bliss arising from it, I doubt not, is superior to any other-but best not to be ventured for (in my opinion), till some little time have proved the emptiness of all other; which it seldom fails to do." If the style were more modern, this could have been written by any woman today. Incidentally, although Elizabeth eventually married Inchbald, it seems to have been a marriage of convenience meant to further their acting careers. They both acted on the stage until his death, at which point she turned to being a playwright and became quite successful. With very little research, I could give you fifty examples of such women (check out the Shameless Scribblers web pages at http://www.writepage.com/others/wwpbios.htm or the Spartacus Encyclopedia page on the Emancipation of Women at http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/women.htm if you don’t believe me), so isn’t it probable that there were even more who never made it into the history books?

My point is that it’s not historically inaccurate to present a heroine who desires a profession. Perhaps there weren’t many women like that, but they did exist, so why shouldn’t an author choose one as a model for her heroine? If you find such heroines uninteresting or you don’t like the author’s handling of those characters, then by all means, don’t read those books. But don’t claim that such an author twists history in creating them or that she dreamed them up only to be politically correct.

First of all, I have to ask, what does one mean when one accuses a book or an author of being "too PC" or "politically correct"?

When we talk about "getting carried away with PC" or say that it started out as a possibly good thing and "went too far," people usually bring up the truly absurd examples like "vertically challenged" instead of "short." Have you ever heard of anyone who said they wanted to be called such a thing? I doubt it, and you won't. Because those are made up examples created to parody the extremes of political correctness. Most people who think there is "too much PC" nowadays usually point out examples like this, neither knowing nor caring that those terms are not ones in real use anywhere.

More irritating are the "anti-PC" rants that starts with some variation of: "I grew up calling (some ethnic group) X, and now they want to be called Y, when X is perfectly okay." When it comes to terminology, what people decry as "PC" basically boils down to, call people what they wish to be called, not what you deem necessary. If your name is Robert, and you prefer to be called Robert, but you know someone who always calls you "Bob" even though he knows you dislike it, would you not consider that person a rude boor? I see nothing wrong with erring on the side of civility.

But we were talking about romance novels, weren't we? In romance novels, "PC" as a criticism seems to be shorthand for having characters saying or doing ahistorical things, such as being a medieval female determined to have a career, or a Regency earl who begs his beloved to communicate and tell him how she feels.

I have mixed feelings. On one hand, as Sabrina Jeffries and others point out, there are exceptions to what we understand to be the "real history" for every time period. Women did work outside the home. Men could be tender.

However, I get frustrated when characters do things that are completely unbelievable for the historical period. For example, I recently read a Western that took place in 1896. Now, the grandmother's character was established as a rebel and a "black sheep" in the family. She had lived "in sin" with her lover for over 20 years and refused to marry him. She had settled in a town out West, where presumably the locals were more tolerant than her New York society relatives. This much I could accept; in fact I liked the idea. Certainly some people did act in ways contrary to the stated standards of the time, and some even got away with it if they had luck and nerve.

However, I could not believe the heroine (the grand-daughter, raised in New York society, remember) not only blithely having sex with the hero but actually threatening him with a gun when he tries to desist! Moreover, her grandmother and aunt not only don't mind that she had sex, but are thrilled at the idea that she might be pregnant. People could and did have illegitimate children, and at times it was taken in stride by the community, but this town was portrayed as one trying to move from the wild frontier to a civilized town. Western towns of the time might have accepted the grandmother's unconventional ways as a throwback to the wild frontier days. But as frontier areas matured, they tried to be more like the places "back East," not less.

Thus I could not buy the concept that none of the characters had any worries about the heroine's reputation or future, or their own for that matter - all of them having been established as faithful members of the local church. I can accept that one or two characters might have a pragmatic attitude toward pregnancy out of wedlock, but the concept of a whole town being blase about it in 1896 brings my suspension of disbelief crashing down.

But on the other hand, as many have said, a lot of people read romance for escapism and fantasy, and don't really want to be reminded of life's unpleasant realities. The vast majority of historical romances feature characters who bathe, have good teeth, don't stink, and don't die in childbirth, despite what we know to be otherwise from "real history." To go even further, no one seems to have basic bodily functions (I'm sure you know what I mean), either. We take these things in stride because no one really wants to see them.

If you can accept this, then some of the more troublesome bits of "historical editing" become more acceptable. Most "real people" of the typical hero or heroine's social class were not known for their liberal opinions on matters of race, gender differences or class. But do we honestly want our escapist reading to reflect this?

I find the best balance in books that are not unbelievably sanitized, but still give me main characters I can relate to. I like books that don't totally hide the unpleasant sides of the time period, but show that the hero and heroine do what they can to change things.

For example, in Nancy Butler's Regency Romance, The Bartered Heart, the heroine found herself in a typical plight for servants at the time when the master of the house tries to molest her. The hero not only protects the heroine, but later makes a point of hiring a former servant of the lecherous master who had been "turned out without a reference" after the nasty nobleman had gotten her pregnant. Butler reflects the reality for servants at the time, but the hero is more likable because he does what he can to change that reality, in a small but believable way.

While some historical accuracy is a good thing, I think that most readers don't want things to be portrayed as they really were, because it would eventually undermine the primary, necessary fantasy of romance fiction. Yes, there were strong women and good men and even romantic love in every age and culture - but not to the degree romance novels need us to believe. Even now, relatively few love relationships have a real happily-ever-after. People marry for money, politics, or pragmatism, just like in the olden days, and few of them end up in love with each other. Then and now, people mistake infatuation or hormones for the real thing, or love gets ground away by reality. In the end, I would argue that that is exactly why we need the escape of romantic fantasy.

A Reader's Dilemma:
Reader Sharon Williams sent me this letter not too long ago, and it expresses a great deal of what I hear from many of you. Read what she has to say, think about it, then answer her questions. Think about your own experiences, and whether you have felt similarly in the past, and how you got over it. Perhaps you are feeling what she feels today, in which case, I'm sure other readers can help you through it. I know I've been through these slumps myself, and they can be very disheartening. Just remember - there's almost always an end to them.

"I’ve been reading all kinds of romance and some mainstream since the late 70’s. In the last few years I find myself more frequently dissatisfied and pondering the reasons for my dissatisfaction more and more. Having read many descriptions of “slump” over the last year I’d have to say I’m a little worse off than that - it feels more like a ditch that I can’t get out of!

"When I started reading there wasn’t a big selection, but those I tried for the most part I liked. After gathering very short backlists I just anxiously awaited new releases for 12-15 tried & true authors. Yes I was a snob for a long time - but a happy one! I was never disappointed in the books I bought from those authors. They had a lot of staying power too, as I have continued to enjoy them until recently. As a matter of fact I still have all those books. ( not that I’ll reread them because there’s no going back, but I do like to occasionally gaze at them and remember long hours of enjoyment)

"This snobbery continued until about 1990 - 91, as I had less & less time to read, what with career goals, school, starting a family - so there was very little time to read and certainly no tolerance for less than a really good book! Well, widespread merging & cutbacks took care of my career but at least it freed up some reading time!

"Here’s where I discovered UBS’s, yard sales, church sales etc. The lowered costs gave me (in my mind) the freedom to start buying authors I never heard of on a grand scale and here’s who I found: Sandra Brown, Candace Camp, Lori Copeland, Catherine Coulter, Jude Deveraux, Julie Garwood, Elizabeth Lowell, Susan Johnson, Judith McNaught, Megan McKinney, Teresa Medeiros, Constance O'day-Flannery, Mary Jo Putney, Karen Robards, Nora Roberts, Amanda Quick, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Christina Skye, Katherine Sutcliffe, and LaVyrle Spencer, to name a few! In retrospect it’s like a Who’s Who of authors I stumbled upon - or did I? Was it luck or were these the newer authors available at that time?

"These authors and their backlists from the late 80’s kept me very busy - making lists, hunting, buying and reading. At the same time I was discovering and hooked by other newer authors coming on the scene.

"Fast forward to 1999 and here I am writing about how dissatisfied I am! How exactly is that possible?

"In the last three to four, I have tripled - quadrupled even - the number of books I’m buying! There have been at least 90 different authors that I have ”tried” in the last few years (apart from those I previously listed). The sheer volume of books (when added to the 45-50 authors I already had on my lists) should produce quite a few “great” or at least “good” books, shouldn’t it?

"Well, that’s the rub of it - it doesn’t. Out of the 90 “tried” authors I found 15 to glom but only 8 out of the 15 were successful gloms (found, read & enjoyed). Some of those were Linda Howard, Connie Brockway, Dinah McCall/Sharaon Sala, Connie Rinehold/Eve Byron, Meryl Sawyer, Theresa Weir. (I notice more frequent contemporary romances on the list.)

"There were about 36 authors of the 82 who had at least 1 or 2 books I enjoyed. The rest of the authors were returned unfinished, never to be considered again!

"Add to this that most of my earlier stable of authors have produced books that I didn’t care for in the last 12 - 18 months (except SEP and Nora), and there you have it! I’m constantly aggravated - just today I got to page 50 of Lynn Kurland’s new book (The More I See You) and couldn’t take anymore. It’s in the return pile. It just seems that I have to work tooooo hard at finding a really good book anymore. I feel like I’m whining but, that’s how I feel - whiny.

"I think the moral of the story is: “More is not more - it’s too much”. It’s like buffet dining, where you only come up with a couple of things you truly enjoyed out of all that food! It’s like deregulation of the utilities - there are endless phone companies to pick from but somehow my 12.00 phone bill has turned into 35.00! It’s all pure excess and no good ever comes from that!

"There are some questions I have to ask myself now:

  • Have standards for getting published changed/lowered?
  • Is glomming practical at this point?
  • Are there too many mediocre authors out there?
  • Is my opinion somehow jaded/cynical from too many years of reading?
  • Am I just burned out on reading?

"Well I can’t quit reading because what would I do if I didn’t have anything to read? It’s a frightening thought! I’m thinking I’ll just have to put a little more research effort into the books I’m buying no matter who the author is! Plus, I enjoy the hunt anyway even if the book turns out to be a stinker!"

Translating the Cover Blurbs

Puzzled by the back cover of a romance novel? Sometimes, it seems that the cover blurbs on romances never tell you what you need to know about a book. Or do they? We at All About Romance (and, in particular, Candy Tan and I) have discovered a secret code that can help you figure out what a book is really about.

Term Real Meaning
Arrogant Complete and utter woman hater
Breathtaking plot The characters are thin
Brooding Manic-depressive
Businesswomen Frigid
Callous Frigid woman hater who has been through a war
Charismatic A really, really charming rogue
Court intrigues Hero and heroine spend a lot of time apart
Dashing (used to describe the hero) Has a killer fashion sense on top of being an alcoholic womanizer
Deadly (used to describe a villain) Extremely obvious
Dissolute (used to describe hero) Alcoholic womanizer
Enigmatic (used to describe hero) All the scenes are from the heroine's viewpoint
Feisty Too stupid to live
Feminist Believes women have the right to vote
Haunted (of the hero) Suspected of killing his wife
Haunted (of the heroine) Witnessed a murder when she was a child
Homey Takes place on another blasted ranch
Innocent Clueless and klutzy
Jaded Hates women
Legendary passion The hero and heroine really, really hate each other
Loner A hero who's impossible to live with
Lyrical prose Purple
Magical The publishers couldn't figure out the plot either
Pleasingly Plump Has trouble dropping that extra ounce
Poignant Whoops, I bought women's fiction by mistake
Proud A heroine who's impossible to live with
Puzzling mystery The butler did it
Rake Alcoholic womanizer
Ravishing Skinny with breasts so large they can be seen from outer space
Resourceful (of the hero) Makes McGyver green with envy
Resourceful (of the heroine) Goes to the hero for help
Respectable The boring fiancé she dumps for the hero
Rogue Borderline alcoholic womanizer, with some violent/criminal tendencies to throw into the mix
Ruined (in a Regency) Was alone with a man for a full minute
Sensual Tremendous breasts
Sensual (alternate definition) Plot? Who needs a plot?
Sensuous Skinny with tremendous breasts
Slapstick The heroine is a klutz
Sophisticated (used to describe heroine) Frigid man hater
Sophisticated (used to describe man) Frigid woman hater
Sparkling humor The heroine is a klutz in a Halston dress
Spinster (in a historical novel) Twenty years old and unmarried
Spunky See "Feisty"
Star-crossed lovers Big trouble with the in-laws
Stormy The hero and heroine hate each other but have lots of sex anyway
Strong-willed (of the hero) Brave enough to put up with a feisty, strong-willed heroine
Strong-willed (of the heroine) Does stupid things just because the hero tells her not to (See "Feisty")
Stunning Big breasts
Suspenseful Plot involves an evil ex-husband, the Mafia, drug dealers, terrorists, or a combination of all four
Swashbuckling If the plot moves quickly enough, they'll never notice the holes...
Tearjerker All the nice characters die
Troubled (of the hero) Saw all his friends killed in battle
Troubled (of the heroine) Has buried memories of childhood trauma
Witty dialogue No sex scenes

We hope you found this fun. Do you have any terms to add to our list? If so, post them to the LN&V message board at the end of the column. We'll turn it into a stand-alone page after we hear from you all.

Time to Post to the Message Board:

Romances that are out of place or time - Have you ever read a contemporary romance that would have been better as an historical romance? Might certain story lines that work in historical settings come across as melodramatic in modern settings?

Rifs on Political Political Correctness - Both Sabrina Jeffries and Colleen McMahon made strong arguments for their varying views on historical accuracy and political correctness. What's your view?

A Reader's Dilemma - What would you like to share with Sharon about your own experiences, and how would you answer her questions?

Translating the Cover Blurbs - Did you like this segment, as developed by Anne and Candy? Would you like to add to it?

TTFN, Laurie Likes Books,
in conjunction with Sabrina Jeffries, Colleen McMahon, Anne Marble, and Candy Tan

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