Romance novels and the dogpoo filter

by Sherwood Smith

Paranormals and urban fantasy, historical romances, romantic historicals . . . futuristics and science fiction. Various definitions float around, and as more authors cross old genre plot and content boundaries, the definitions have to be reinvented, retrofitted, expanded-to-include. But one thing I see persistently, far too often: “Oh well, this one I’m reading, it’s not a romance novel!” In the tone of voice usually reserved for the discovery of something many-legged in one’s salad.

I’ve been trying to figure out why romance gets such a bad rap, besides the obvious—written mostly by women, bought and read mostly by women, the main plot arc being finding a mate ending with hero and heroine as a committed couple.

For the most part, I’ve seen this dismissive stuff from people who haven’t actually read any romance, or maybe took a peek inside the cover of a random one, saw some infelicitous prose, and condemned them all for ever after. “I don’t have to read one to know they’re crap.  I mean, just look at those covers!” Like, we don’t judge books by their covers . . . except for romance novels.

I’ve met people who enjoy romance, but admit it with that slight duck of the head, the dropped voice of embarrassment. I understand that embarrassment from people my age or older, especially if there’s a man in the room, because it’s difficult to get completely past that early training that grants whatever a man thinks automatic authority, and of course no man would read anything “domestic” or “girly” or “emotional.” [insert glyph of much eye-rolling here]

But I mean among women. What is this implication that reading a romance novel causes an automatic IQ drop of fifty points?

Is there a sense that romance novels betray the precepts of feminism because these novels are about seeking and finding a mate? That seems odd if one stops to consider that these books are edited by women, bought by women who speak out firmly about what they like and dislike to the extent that the guidelines for romance novels have ramified to a fascinatingly tangled degree. Women have become a mighty force in the publishing world by writing and publishing the type of fiction their readership wants. Seems to me that’s exactly what the feminist movement was about: having what we want, instead of having what a man wants us to have. Even if what we want is a man.

But that’s another topic. Back to romance novels. What does its readership want? What constitutes ‘romance’ is an ever-evolving and fascinating question ranging from the hot’n’spicy to teenagers just making the first tentative steps into the world of courtship, and set against backgrounds all over the world and time . . . and in space. Or other worlds.

The days of the Harlequin heroine whose only attributes are beauty, passivity as she waits for that alpha male to dump the Evil Mistress, and virginity, are long gone. In fact, it’s worthwhile to find some of those old novels in the dime-a-throw bin at used bookstores to discover just how many of the unquestioned assumptions in the novels have changed in the last thirty years.

But that was then, and this is now. Anyone perusing a just-published romance novel is unlikely to find a wilting flower of a heroine waiting around passively (and “purely”) for her prince to come. Yet mention romance around general readers and watch the little signals of superiority and judgment. What’s going on?

I have a couple of ideas to throw out. The obvious one is that what we don’t like we label as bad. So obvious I don’t see any use in elaborating. And some are not going to like the basic structure of a romance any more than I like the basic structure of a horror novel. Doesn’t fit your wishes? Move on.

But what about the bad rep, the implication that readers who like romance are tasteless twits? The theory I’ve been playing around with is the use of intimate space. Quick definition: the god’s eye view, or third limited (staying outside the characters’ thoughts, only reporting what they do or say) is public space, and personal space is when you gain access to the thoughts of characters. Intimate space is when the clothing comes off, figuratively and symbolically. Because intimate space is not all about sex.

Romance writers are aware of this. They choose their intimate moments deliberately. We might follow a couple into the bedroom and stay while the clothes go flying to every corner of the room, but we don’t follow either of them into the bathroom after the fun. We don’t follow them to the dentist for a root canal. We don’t follow them to the post office for that forty-five minute wait in line on a Friday afternoon while they stand there picking at a hangnail and worrying about Auntie Susu’s doctor visit. That intimate space is explored by writers of what’s called ‘literary fiction,’ though fifty, eighty years ago, literary fiction stayed strictly out of intimate space, requiring the reader to guess what was in the characters’ heads. It, too, has its fashions. I’ll come back to that.

In a romance novel, one expects long scenes in intimate space, that is, we are inside the characters’ heads as they experience attraction, then begin the courtship dance, and in spicier novels, we follow them into the bedroom. And even here, the writer chooses that which will convey a romantic emotional experience to the reader, instead of dwelling on the details of intimacy inevitable with human bodies–the moments that are painful, humiliating, or unintentionally funny. Though some writers will deftly touch on these, too. This is part of where the art comes in.

The prompting for this post was my thinking about the handling of intimate space when crossing genres. In the last couple of decades writers have been experimenting with combining elements of various genres that used to be neatly pigeonholed. Finding marketing terms for them has been interesting. This is where you hear about paranormals on one hand, and urban fantasy on the other, etc.

To keep this riff from expanding to novel length, I’m going to confine myself to an example in which a romantic historical becomes a historical romance. A couple years ago, someone recommended a novel that takes place during the Napoleonic era, about which I’ve read a great deal. Dashing nobleman spy, thief heroine spy who turns out to have some sensory issues, adventure. Sounds like something I’d really enjoy. Opens with a bang—hero and heroine have been captured by the French and they are going to be executed!

But here’s where the story lost me: the hero and heroine are so attracted to one another that that’s pretty much all they think about, which deflates the sense of any danger. I wouldn’t have minded if the setting for that meet-and-let’s-kiss was a marble ballroom or a fusty parlor or a ride in a park, but in a dungeon with the threat of death hanging over them? Where I expected action and derring-do, maybe some wit, I got pages of lust. I am not saying this is a bad book, it’s just that for me, the intimate space overbalanced the rest of the elements to the degree that I could not believe in them. But for other readers, it was a perfect blend of a hint of danger and lots of romantic potential. These readers were coming to the book primarily for the relationship in intimate space. They only want the trappings of danger. They don’t want to feel danger.

I think a lot of the resistance to romance comes to that question of long passages in the intimate space. In ‘slice of life’ stories, the author describes other intimate aspects of life, thus you get the root canals and the long afternoons of quiet personal misery, the deathbeds and the agonies of being dumped on for no reason, and with no promise of justice. This fiction can have a powerful effect, especially I think on young readers who haven’t much life experience. Or readers of any age who are seeking to read about the intimate lives of people in radically different circumstances from their own.

There is a lot of assertion out there that this type of fiction is ‘better’ or ‘literature’ whereas romances or genre adventures aren’t literature. This ‘suffering is good for you’ attitude causes a sharp divide between readers–as sharp a divide as purposes for reading. A book that delves into the darker aspects of human experience can be intensely disturbing, but I am not convinced it’s better than other types of fiction. It’s not always wise, or enlightening. In fact, as you get older, it’s not even shocking.

I was talking to some older women about this very thing, and one pointed out that she’s been there, she’s already seen the full range of little horrors that life deals out. Nobody has anything to say about it that she hasn’t already heard.

Another said that that she has no interest in a work that eschews the full range of human experience in favor of the petty and disturbing. She pointed out that the details of people killing and eating a human baby was supposed to be literature whereas a beautifully written romance isn’t?  Then she said, “It makes as much sense to call that kind of thing award winning as it does to walk around with dogpoo smeared on my glasses, so I see the world through a grundgy stench. Who’s going to be impressed?”

To which the first woman said, “If it’s done by a white man, I just bet you another man will call it art, and slap a fifty thousand dollar price tag on it. And if they hang it in a hotsy totsy enough setting, another man will pay for the exclusive right to that art, and publish an article in the New Yorker about how it symbolizes the decline of Western Civilization. Then for a season or two the poo fellow’s the bee’s knees.”

To which the third woman responded, “I’d read about that! I love sting stories. But give it a happy, romantic ending. Because when I close a book I want to smile. You get to my time of life, and you really treasure the smiles.”



Romance novels and the dogpoo filter — 43 Comments

  1. I think you’re onto something there, with the excess of intimate space! I’m not going to say I don’t like Romance novels, because, although for most of my teen years I would read the backs of the books in the grocery store but would have reacted in horror if anyone I knew saw me looking, I have grown up slightly. Now I have friends who write romances, and I have even found my own niche that I will read because they are romances. But I can’t read them very often, because they make me feel slightly ill.

    I would say I actively dislike suffering-for-suffering’s sake books, but instead of thinking they’re the antithesis of Romance, they kind of fall into the same category. They’re the books that climb the same mountain over and over again. (Well, Romance novels, on a whole, tend to actually arc- making it up the mountain, rather than muddling around in the rocks at the bottom.) But neither of them get past it. And that’s what’s disappointing to me.

    Romance makes you want to like the characters (Litfic doesn’t usually bother) and because of that it’s even more disappointing. If you’ve invested in these characters, and you sigh when they fall and cheer when they succeed, you want to dream big. You want them to change their world, not just have a little house and a happy marriage. So when you’ve reached the end and they’ve overcome the odds to be together, it’s a bit of a let down. Romance is a lot like eating candy. it’s tasty, but there’s nothing to it, no depth or complexity, and definitely no nutrients, and you feel sick if you eat too much. But the petty and disturbing kind is like eating styrofoam. You aren’t going to digest it, and it doesn’t even taste good on the way down, and who knows what it’s actually doing to your insides.

    A little sweet, a little bitter, they can both be wonderful, if there’s something real underneath.

  2. Cara, that’s an interesting comparison!

    I learned from reading Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature that there are some readers who don’t engage with the characters by ‘riding on their shoulder’ the way romance readers are supposed to, feeling what they feel. Reading is an intellectual puzzle, an artistic combination of human traits. So you get Lolita and its lapidary prose and microscopic examination of very, very broken people. It’s a brilliant book–but nothing I will ever read again.

    But I also have trouble with the fourth wall. I like it to come down. I like to slide into the storyverse and “be” the people. But I do NOT want to be in the Lolita-verse, so I had to fight constantly to stay “outside” and regard the book as an intellectual puzzle. It could be that for many who like books like Lolita that fourth wall just never comes down.

  3. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can enjoy a romance or a romantic book (I’m told it doesn’t officially count as a romance if the hero and heroine take a few books t get together) if they have passions other than each other. As I’ve written elsewhere, I liked those old Betty Cavanna teen romances where the heroine learned to ski or fly and along the way met a boy who shared that passion, or something like The Linden Tree (British romance, probably pretty obscure, I think I bought it in an airport years ago) where the two are bound together by the garden they’ve jointly inherited.

    On the other hand, I recently read one romance novel (because it was written by a high-school friend of mine) where the heroine was so obsessed with getting married that that’s all we saw – the reader doesn’t even get to see the personality traits we’re supposed to like her for.

  4. Miss Austen wrote Romance Novels and was unashamed. Humans tend to be interested in human connections, and those are what make any story compelling to me. Romantic love brings joy–or so we hope–and so it’s often a large part of a story from any genre. Having said that, I like my romance with a dash of humor and adventure, and I prefer to see the relationship develop rather than just go bang.

  5. Regarding the dog poo filter, I liked what my younger daughter had to say, in a video she did about preparing to be an exchange student. She said, “Have you ever noticed that when people say they’re going to tell you “the truth” about anything, what they really mean is, they’re going to tell you all the negative things? Why is it that we say we value truth, and then we reserve the term “truth” for only bad stuff?”

    That’s a great rhetorical question, because of course life has all the things in it: cruelty, yes, but also kindness; loneliness, yes, but also friendship blossoming in unlikely circumstances; crushing blows, but also moments of delight.

    The dog poo people, when they’re not trying just to alarm and upset people (which sometimes is their stated goal!), I think see themselves as offering a corrective to unrelenting happy-happy joy-joy (though: where is this unrelenting happy-happy joy-joy to which they refer? Sometimes I think most of the battles people fight are between themselves and weird paper tigers that don’t actually exist). Anyway, insofar as their work really is a corrective, the opposite corrective is *also* necessary: from the dark into the bright.

    A focus on feelings and feelings blossoming, and loving descriptions of the object of the protag’s affections, etc., don’t work for me much because what stimulates attraction in me is the situation and the drama. The captured spy won’t be attractive to me unless I see him enacting plot, if you see what I mean. It’s the enacting of plot that makes him attractive to me–pretty much. I mean, it helps for him to be good-looking, but he can be average looking or even trending toward the not-my-type in looks, and if he does things that I like in the story, if he acts a certain way, then BANG. That makes him attractive to me.

  6. Dichroic: Yes, actually, that claustrophobic focus veers close to a horror novel for me. Not for others, obviously. But I share your preference for novels that broaden the view. (But then my favorites mix everything, from gods-eye or detached view of the panorama down to microscopic detail, the full range of emotion, and a variety of actions, settings, characters.)

    Pilgrimsoul: I’m not so sure that Jane Austen set out to write romance novels in the sense that we mean now. I think she was writing social satire from the perspective of the woman; it’s is true she ends with wedding bells, but in her day there was a great deal of life that delicacy forbade lady writers to explore. (Which is one of the reasons why I think that Mansfield Park, though a great novel, finally doesn’t work, because we don’t see Henry’s moment of feet-of-clay with Maria Rushworth, we’re told it from a proper distance, and we don’t see Edmund’s painful process of falling out of love with Mary and into it with his cousin, we’re told that it happened at “exactly the right moment.” This tongue-in-cheek, ladylike narrative device works against the carefully built drama of everything gone before.

    Asakiyume: You touch on something that I think I share. I understand about heroes needing to seem larger than life, and in this case, romantic leads need to be beautiful/handsome/attractive, but I confess I like the attraction to build, not to be in-your-face from the gitgo. Though of course many readers disagree.

    And yes, that observation of your daughter’s seems spot on.

  7. Cara, would the subgenre of fantasy, paranormal or sf romance not occasionally offer a work that has both a personal quest toward fulfillment as a couple as well as a world-changing aspect?

    Examples I would group there are Cordelia’s Honor, The Curse of Chalion and most definitely the Sharing Knife series by LMB, the Warlands trilogy by Elizabeth Vaughan, the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh (although as that focusses on various couples advancing the main storyline I don’t know if that would fall under exactly the same aspect) – similar to the Guardian series by Meljean Brook.

  8. Romance in the sense that the heart of the book and main plot line is two worthy people finding love–and of course in her time–marriage.

  9. Oooh. As an avid reader of romance novels, this is a great post. *chinhands*

    The shaming for reading and devaluation of romance novels is one of those things I think of as sexism parfaits. There are just so many layers of grossness going on – the authors are usually women, and women writers are seen as inferior – it’s about feeeeeelings, and that’s woman stuff! – generally a woman’s pov, and that makes it an inferior pov, because her interior journey somehow can’t be a Great Novel – and then they’re about sex! And women aren’t meant to be into that – well, maybe silly women – and anyway they’re all unfeminist because some of them aren’t feminist. Real feminists, smart ladies, read books written by boys. No, wait…

    So. Many. Layers.

    And the covers. I mean, smart ladies I am friends with won’t read the books based on the covers, and dismiss it as ‘my porn.’

    And I’d like to pretend I’m immune, but obviously, nobody ever is – my reading of romance novels went way up ever since I got an ereader. Not only do the covers get judged, but I’ve actually been harassed while reading them – in a bank, in a park – a woman reading that kind of book can’t be absorbed in it. She’s just sitting around waiting for sex.

    Let us not even discuss that poor teacher whose job was endangered because she dared write erotic novels under a pseudonym.

    And yet there is also, as with every genre, the issues of quality, and the issue of everyone’s mileage may vary. Too much intimate space, too much military focus, too much manpain, too much politics: it’s why we all have genres and preferences. I’m not much for loins afire until the characters know each other, and I know them: I can’t invest in their loins until then. 😉

    But that doesn’t mean someone who does like the instalust is a bad reader or silly: our mileages just vary.

  10. Pilgrimsoul Totally with you there. In fact, you put me in mind of Austen’s brilliant little discursion at the front of Northanger Abbey wherein seventeen-year-old Catherine wonders why novels about battles and kings, with long speeches put into their mouths, are inherently better than novels, the implication ‘written by women.’ And goes on to give a nod to the widsom and insight found in such novels as Burney’s Cecelia–from which Austen gleaned the phrase “pride and prejudice.”

    Sarah Rees Brennan: The vexing thing is that male books can delve just as much into feelings. I will never argue that Proust’s In Search of Lost Time isn’t brilliant like a brilliant thing. It’s in fact a remarkable work of monumental length that pretty much all takes place in intimate space . . . and yet the true impetus is hidden, to surface very briefly in a several-page sentence that basically is a cri du coeur for the gay perspective.

    But it gets its due kudos. Until female scholarship began hammering at the ‘classics’ wall, how many women’s novels experimenting in intimate space are so hailed? Um, let’s see, who even knows about Elizabeth Haywood, whose ideas seem to have been borrowed by both Richardson and Fielding?

  11. “If you’ve invested in these characters, and you sigh when they fall and cheer when they succeed, you want to dream big. You want them to change their world, not just have a little house and a happy marriage.”

    Those aren’t the romances that I read! There *are* romances like that, but these days there are also many in which the heroine has a significant quest of her own, and achieves it, or at least takes steps toward changing her world.

  12. I generally don’t like romance fiction, and at this point, I’m relatively sure that it’s because it’s about a woman falling in love with a scary man (not necessarily a rapist, not necessarily an alpha, and she isn’t necessarily passive) and it all working out well.

    For example, in _Chalice_ by McKinley, the hero starts out by burning the heroine rather badly. There are perfectly good reasons– it was an accident, he’s the partially transformed priest of a fire god, he eventually heals her– but I think it was an intended part of the emotional charge of a very efficient book.

    _A Feral Darkness_ by Doranna Durgin (an engaging mixture of horror, science fiction, and running a dog grooming business) has the heroine fall in love with Mr. Tall, Dark, and Scary who refuses to give her information when she needs it. She doesn’t fall in love with the younger brother, who is Tall, Dark, and Not Scary. I’d like to read a novel or two where the romance hero is genuinely the worse choice, and the heroine has to figure that out. (These may exist without my having heard of them.)

    In _Havenstar_ by Glenda Noramly, a fantasy which had almost everything I like going for it– oppressed but spunky heroine, ingenious magic system based on maps changing reality, vivid action scenes– but the love interest has black, black eyes and carries a whip, and every time he was described, some of the air went out of the book for me. (Noramly is now publishing as Glenda Larke.)

    I don’t always hate that sort of thing– I liked McKinley’s _Sunshine_ very much, and I think what I like in that is the couple’s love protects them from outside threats– the emphasis is mostly there rather than on difficulties in establishing the relationships.
    _The Stormy Love Life Of Laura Cordelais_ by Susan Hanniford Crowley is of the same kind, though without the literary ambition.

    I’m very fond of the Miles/Ekaterin novels and find the Sharing Knife novels insufferably boring– I’m not sure of the exact difference in the love stories there.

    I’m aware of the status issues around romance, and it’s a shame that many romance fans are embarrassed about what they like, but that isn’t the only reason for not liking romance.

    On the status side, it’s not as though the most common entertainments for men (pornography, stories where the violence is the fun) are exactly respectable.

    Possibly of interest: _How Fiction Works_ by James Wood– the title promises more than it gives, but it does have a history of the current idea of a literary novel, with some skepticism about high levels of visual detail and “well-rounded” characters.

  13. Nancy Lebowitz: interesting thoughts. I’ve been reading various people on how and why fiction works–there are a surprising number of theories out there.

    Re romantic novels where the creepy alpha male is turned down, try Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion. Though she built a rep in part for awarding her heroines with rough alpha males who crush heroines in their arms and give them bruising kisses, she turned that trope on its head with that particular novel.

  14. It’s a brilliant book–but nothing I will ever read again.

    Ah, yes! I have read several of those. Gormanghast, The Bone People… 🙁

    I do like to get inside that fourth wall, which is why I can’t read horror.

    I think my problem with romance is similar to Asakiyume’s, I want more than just the boy meets girl stuff and like Nancy Lebovitz I am very wary of Mr Tall Dark & Scary.

    However, I am not against romance with a small ‘r’ and I’m a total sucker for a romantic subplot in a book, whether it’s a thriller, whodunit, SF or fantasy.

  15. Great topic, Sherwood.

    I remember, growing up, that romance novels were treated much differently than they are today. At least in the spaces where I grew up.

    Women were different then, of course, and romance novels were more of a “guilty pleasure”, though, naturally, they didn’t come with the amount of actual sex they have now.

    Nowadays, not so many women seem to go for purely romance novels, unless they’re those same women that read them back then. I have heard a lot of women comdemn them for the alpha males and the way women are portrayed, though I’ve also heard lots of women that like that set-up in the new variations (urban fantasy/paranormal romance/etc.) of the genre.

    I, personally, am not a strict romance reader. I don’t look down on them, but they bore me. I’d much rather have story to go with my sex, LOL.

    I find myself, when I read paranormal romance or urban fantasy with relationships, trying to separate the genres. And, I’m sure that’s NOT what the author intended.

    One author, in a blog post a while back, said that her publishing contracts stated how many romance/sex scenes her novels were to contain, and the types. This was in a popular urban fantasy and I was rather apalled.

    I read one book that I could have LOVED except that every time the story became awesome, it was time to stop for sex. And, as you mentioned with the historical, it interrupted the tension and the forward motion of the story.

    The biggest problem with the sex scenes in that book and some others that I’ve read over the past few years is that they were repetitive. And, I got bored and found myself skipping them.

    When I find an urban fantasy/paranormal romance with sexual TENSION, now those are great to read. I love how it affects the characters interactions, not only with each other, but with those around them, and how it can jeopardize the outcome of the story.

    Once they actually hop into bed together (and a lot of times there’s a building to it so that these scenes are truly sexy), it’s the culmination of emotions and passions that have risen throughout the book and it’s a great payoff.

    Then, it raises the stakes in the story itself because now, in addition to caring about the characters and the story, we care about their relationship and what it will do to one if they lose the other.

    So, I guess, in order for romance to work for me, it must go past the superficial, not take away from the story, and grow out of the story instead of interrupting it.

  16. I think I know the highly lauded historical romance about the lusty Napoleonic spies to which you refer and I had pretty much the same reaction as you: Too much lusting, not enough action. This is also probably why I tend towards the hybrid romance subgenres, i.e. paranormal romance, urban fantasy, SF/futuristic romance, romantic suspense, etc…, because the balance between intimate space, plot and worldbuilding in those hybrid subgenres is more to my taste.

    As for why romance gets a bad rap, part of it is simply that it’s written by women and deals with intimate or domestic issues and of course that it contains sex, described from a female POV no less, when women usually aren’t supposed or expected to enjoy sex (I’m surprised how resilient that particular myth is). But Ian McEwan can write a whole novel about a sexual encounter gone wrong and have it called high art, because the couple subsequently breaks up and is miserable (she celibate and he promiscuous) for the rest of their lives. Never mind that a simple conversation could have cleared up that situation and a second attempt would probably have gone more satisfactorily for all concerned.

    I have the sneaking suspicion that some men also feel threatened by romance, because there are those books in which women discuss their ideal partners and described perfect mindblowing sex and how can a real life man measure up to that? So they put down the genre and call it porn. Though there are men who read romance and even male scholars of romance.

    The dog-poo filter is an interesting concept and oh so true. Because if we look at real life, like those dog-poo filter people claim to do, a whole lot of relationships are happy and last, even though many couples break up. Good sex is more common than bad sex (or is that just me?). And most people in the Western world live a variation of the romance HEA, in a committed relationship with the partner of their choice in home of their own, usually with children and likely pets. Meanwhile, murder and grisly crimes are not all that common in the real world, though they exist, and small children are not regularly chucked off towers as in a certain gritty and realistic fantasy series. I don’t have a problem with people wanting to read solely about the grisly and depressing stuff, though I view it as a sort of reverse escapism: My life may be bad, but at least I’m not being dismembered alive by Cthulhu, while Tyrion Lannister eats my children and rapes my partner. Nothing wrong with that, but dog poo is not necessarily better than hearts and flowers.

  17. PS: For all those who have issues with the tall, dark and scary alpha males (I don’t like them myself), there are romances with different heroes available these days, though you may have to search a bit to find them.

  18. Estara –

    Actually, the whole time I was reading this post, I was thinking about Cordelia’s Honor, about how I had never been that invested in a straight-couple’s relationship before, and that although I was rooting for them to get together, I was so enamored of each of them as people, of their morality and how that interacted with their culture, and the sacrifices they were willing to make when real things were at stake, that I would have been fine if they had stayed apart. And yet, at the end of the first book, when they come back together, because they are -to each other- the reliability and peace they need in an impossibly difficult, angry world, I couldn’t help but celebrating.

    It also didn’t have one of the things I despise in romance novels, where one character must take the romantic interest in hand and fix him or her. They both had to learn to accept each other, and appreciate the not-so-usual parts. And of course, my favorite thing, which is overcoming society’s disapproval, not by ignoring it, or running away, but facing it head on, working within the rules and bending them.

    If the other books you mention have this sort of romance, my summer reading list is looking better and better.

    Nancy Lebovitz –

    I loved _Chalice_, but I would have loved it a bit more if the MC had been allowed to do her bit for saving the country without his help, and he had done his bit, without her help, and then they had been friends. Having them decide to get married at the end was kind of out of the blue and unnecessary. The feelings they had for each other were logical and well founded, centered in mutual respect and a common goal, but they really weren’t romantic at all.

  19. Cara: There is some fixing of others problems in the Psy-Changeling series and the Guardian series (not really in reconstructing their persona, but helping them out of difficulties), but definitely in none of the Lois McMaster Bujold fantasy or sf do you have that – so it’s safe to start with those ^^.
    The Kate Daniels urban fantasy/paranormal romance also has no real fixing of the other, but the couple are both bone-headed and have preconceptions about each other that not only endanger their lives occasionally (which they actually LEARN from) but which they have to overcome. Both are flawed and because the world actually IS at stake it’s really important they get it together.

    The first book was difficult for the usual romance crowd, because the fantasy aspect was the main thing and the female heroine was NOT interested in a relationship at the time, with anyone of any intensity and she had good reasons for that, too. It came across as abrasive to some readers – but we do get her own view point and background info so I actually thought it made total sense.

  20. Sherwood, you definitely put the finger on the things that’s made4 me wonder why some otherwise well-written romance novels work for me and some don’t — I had been trying to put this together, since I have one sitting on the desk right now that I started a couple of weeks ago, was enjoying, but stopped and haven’t resumed (Albeit with a guilty feeling of “I should finish this” — and I probably will soon enough). Because there is action, but it does get occasionally overwhelmed by the waves of desire. I’m probably okay with a book that’s mostly or all in that intimate space — provided that we’re given a story that is designed for that kind of intimate space (Ie, one where the plots other than just the romance are intimate plots). Once you throw in an obvious action or external space thread, be it a werewolf, a business, a caper, or a war, there’s a need to offer motivations other than “I want you!”, and activities other than, “The danger has me more riled up, let’s have sex!”

    And yet I do sometimes want a strong romance in my fiction, and I don’t think it’s at all a bad impulse to want to see people get together and be happy. I want it for my friends in real life, too.

    Cotillion is an *excellent* story for an antidote to the scary male being the object of desire.

    Asakiyume: I think the ‘dog-poo’ people are, many of them, not railing against a ‘happy happy joy joy’ aspect to the world so much as they’re railing against people they feel are going blindly through the world without really looking at everything that’s in the world. That they feel are saying “I’d rather read a romance novel where things end happily than read the news”. Which, since people don’t tend to consciously say things like, “I’m going to ignore that shining field of sunflowers, or this delicious strawberry” they feel means they have to emphasize the nasty.

    The thing is, they’re wrong; the person saying they’d rather read a romance than the news almost certainly has a good idea that people in the world get cancer, that wars happen in all their blood and horror and only the briefest glimpses of nobility or courage, that there’s dog-poo on the street, and ugliness. They’re not unaware. If they were unaware, or being fed happy happy joy joy messages exclusively, they wouldn’t be consciously feeling the need to seek out happy stories.

    Thing is, I see worth in the balance of things, in the need to write stories where bad things happen, but so do good. Where people fall in love while trying to fix the world.

    That being said:

    Cora M: You want them to change their world, not just have a little house and a happy marriage.

    I disagree with his. Some of the ways people make the world better just involve fixing a broken house or a broken family. The thing is, the stakes need to fit the story. if you being with spies in Napoleonic Europe, ending with a little cottage is liable to seem a disappointment — even if one or both claims that”s all they really want (Because if that’s true, they’re in an unusual line of work for achieving their goals…) However, if you being, as one romance I read recently did, with a father and daughter in mourning for the father’s lost partner, and a woman still recovering from a traumatic assault, and it’s clear all along that not only do they want a happy secure home, they need to build one, and they need one another to make it work, then when they ended with a happy home, I was cheering. The stakes did involve more than ‘will they fall in love?” but it’s a personal set of stakes.

  21. Hm. This is, in many parts, a reiteration of what others have said, but here’s my two cents:

    I’m quite fond of romance, with a small r. A relationship that is good for the people involved, where I like the protagonists (or understand why they like each other), often when it takes a while to build (but not too long — I spend a decent portion of Alison Goodman’s Eon and Eona just wanting to smack together the heads of two minor characters and go, “JUST SMOOCH ALREADY!” (I think I need to be convinced by the impediments to the relationship if it’s taking a while to get off the ground)).

    I need something more than that, though. I guess I don’t really think of a romance as a “plot” the way I think of action or political intrigue of adventure as a “plot.” I like it as a subplot. But I think I want the thing driving me to pick the book up again when I set it down to be something more than the romance. (Although I can also think of counterexamples that I like where there isn’t much going on besides the romance.)

    Now, that said, I mostly don’t read things that I consider pure “romance” novels — although I have read Anne McCaffrey’s early standalone novels, before she was Anne McCaffrey, which are, to my recollection, romances in a world with spaceships or whatever (and the double whammy, cover-wise, of old sci-fi and plot that is essentially romantic in nature).

    I have an interesting relationship to what you term intimate space, in that I enjoy the edges of it, if it is done in a particular way, but only to a certain extent, after which I feel that it is too graphic.

    As far as what I call “The Fey Boyfriend Trope” (including vampire boyfriends, werewolf boyfriends, normal-but-uber-creepy boyfriends, etc), I won’t say that I never enjoy it, but I start out with very little patience, so a book can very easily annoy me.

  22. Lenora: Well said.

    Miriam: Two of your examples remind me that sometimes books work for a specific audience but won’t for another. Eon annoyed me because it seemed built around Stupid Plot: it was obvious from the first chapter what the central “mystery” was so I kept impatiently reading every chapter, waiting for the heroine to stop fiddling around and see the obvious and get on with things. If I were the young teen reader the book was aimed at, I might not have seen the mystery, and the story would have taken off for me.

    Same with the Fey Boyfriend. I’ve seen so many of these, they all blend together, and the boyz seem basically really boring if you shut your eyes to their incredible beauty. But a thirteen year old just beginning to read teen books, and just beginning to feel those waves of attraction, is going to react quite differently to these stories.

  23. Thanks for the recommendations of Cotillion. Since the book is spoiled already, does it go on for a while with Mr. Scary being plausible as the romance hero?

    Does it say anything interesting that books like Cotillion are very rare?

    In regards to the intimate view: Are there any books that do a good job of covering the real range of emotional experience from the high to the low, and from the dreary details to the making a significant difference?

    I love looking at the sky. It doesn’t serve any other purpose, but give me an elaborate cloudscape and I’m happy while I’m looking at it. The same for watching moving water. I don’t think I’ve seen a character in any sort of book which has that sort of reaction to anything.

    This may be unfair, but a huge amount of paranormal romance is sold by the idea that the guy (male, but not exactly human) is terrifying. I don’t read those books– are they usually as they’re described in the blurb?

    And perhaps a topic for another essay– how is “human” created in fantasy? Why do people generally read Rowling’s wizards as human to such an extent that the prejudice against muggles (us) is in the fun to tolerable range? Does Hamilton go up to the limit of humanness or over it? Could there be a popular novel about something like the Ents and the Entwives finding each other?

    Cara M., there was some plot thing in Chalice about the two being legally stuck with marrying each other. I’m sure it looked like a eucatastrophe to some readers when things shifted so the two sympathetic characters were required to marry rather than Our Heroine and Mr. Godawful, but I saw the wheels going around too soon.

  24. “In ‘slice of life’ stories, the author describes other intimate aspects of life, thus you get the root canals and the long afternoons of quiet personal misery, the deathbeds and the agonies of being dumped on for no reason, and with no promise of justice. This fiction can have a powerful effect, especially I think on young readers who haven’t much life experience.”

    Have you been reading my college’s creative writing ‘zines? Because this describes them to a T.

    While I don’t read much capital-R, separate-section-in-bookstore Romance, I do read some things of a primarily romantic nature. I vacillate on Mr.Tall, Dark and Scary. I think, on the one hand, there are Beauty and the Beast-style stories, where there’s a different side to a man who comes off as gruff or cold or dark. Rather than the heroine falling in love with the Scary, she falls in love with the human behind it. Things that get off to a bad start (like Chalice) can lead to something very different and interesting. These can still annoy me when they become about the heroine “fixing” the love interest in order to facilitate a HEA.

    But then there’s Mr. Tall, Dark, and Scary who never stops being Scary in some way, right up to being borderline abusive. This tends to be when I spend the remainder of the book wanting to grab the heroine and get her some sort of help.

    One of the dismissals of Romance that I hear often is, “Oh, it’s just porn, but for women.” (by “for women” they mean “with squishy emotions and phrases like ‘her petals'”) Mercy me, the very idea that women might read something for sexual titillation! *pearl clutch* Their poor innocent minds! Much better to leave all that smut for the men.

    I think this speaks both to the issues Western society has with a)unashamed consumption of media for sexual arousal and b)women participating in said activity.

  25. Nancy: In Cotillion, Mr Scary is plausible all the way.

    Re muggles, I read that as class–muggles were relentlessly middle cloass stodgy, or lower. Elegant and smart? That was reserved for the blue bloods, er, the wizards, whose magic didn’t actually accomplish much of anything substantive outside of fighting each other, and maybe cool SFX.

    Megan: my high school creative writing fellow students were much the same in the sixties. Oh, and in the nineties, my daughter knew someone lauded for her shocking poetic brilliance . . . I remember the play with the chorus of aborted babies of nuns singing. Other than the shock value, there wasn’t one whit of sign of actual human experience there, but the shock value made it daring and shocking for her fellow students.

  26. I guess every college creative writing class or university magazine is full of those writers and stories. Some of them eventually grow up, acquire some actual life experience and become decent writers. Others don’t.

    Meanwhile, we get deep and soulful epiphanies about chewing gum paper dropped at a tram station.

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  28. I once read in a how-to-write-romance-book that the differences between a true romance and a different-genre-here/romance is that in the romance, what pushes and drives the story is the romance itself. In other words, the relationship between the hero and heroine.

    Much as I do enjoy and appreciate a beautiful romantic relationship, I’ve always preferred a story where there’s more than just Love-and-Attraction. I want to read about the characters growing on their own, and not always because the other person has appeared in their lives. A couple of romances have given me that spark of action or adventure or mystery (or anything else interesting), but most of those I read tend to be mainly lust-filled.

    As with all books, personal preferences matter. I originally hated romances because I felt that the pages and pages of lust-filled descriptions and endless sex scenes were absolutely unnecessary. I mean, who cares what they’re doing in the middle of the night? Fine, they’re getting to know each other. Let’s move on. Why describe every single little movement they make? But of course, there are readers who enjoy reading about such stuff, and that’s who the author (and the genre) is catering to.

    There’s also the fact that many of the romances tend to follow the same basic outline: Man meets woman, they seem to dislike each other BUT there’s a tiny spark of attraction, add a villain who wants his life or hers, that spark becomes a raging fire, they learn to get along, they somehow defeat the villain, and then they get married and live happily ever after. After reading three or more of this, it starts to get old.

    But again, most romances cater to a specific type of audience, and the reason that people not in that audience put it down is because they simply prefer other types of books. They do not see the attraction of a romance novel (pardon the horrible pun here), and thus dismiss its readers as silly and frivolous. Because all they see is that provocative cover of the book. (Which is often badly drawn. I remember once exclaiming at how the wind is blowing in about three different directions on the same spot)

    …I don’t know if I managed to make any sense up there. ^^;

  29. As a romance writer, I’ve been having this discussion for well over twenty years, and this is a brilliant perspective. The problem with discussing romance is that it’s rather like the blind men and the elephant…the subject is enormous and we’re all looking at it from the very few pieces of it we’ve seen.

    Romance is roughly 50% of mass market, and that’s not counting a lot of the books mentioned above, the ones in which romance appears in urban fantasy, et al. The average romance writer and editor knows sex sells. If they want to make money, sex must be included. The best writers learn how to make that work for them. They take fantastic stories about interesting characters and involving action and weave the sex into the fabric of the material. Finding those writers is difficult in a sea of otherness.

    And since readers are buying that sea of otherness, then one has to assume the majority of readers will take what they can get, which is the happy ending.

    I think I know which historical romance to which you referred. It was a huge topic on romance boards for months and sold extremely well. And you nailed it–the average romance reader doesn’t want to feel danger. They want the courtship dance. This author managed to find a combination of sex and adventure that worked for her and a lot of other people. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, just that it’s what a lot of readers wanted.

    So I totally understand our bad rep because in ways, we’re not for every reader. Sex and that yucky intimate space thing are just two reasons it’s easy to criticize romance. It’s worth trying to understand why so many readers crave that fantasy, and the dog poo is just part of the equation. You’d need a book to work it all out!

  30. Lenora Rose-
    I think, in that book you described, they did save the world. The world as in the world delineated by the book, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about, they have challenges that are personal and important, and they meet them, but not as mere fallout from the beauty of their perfect love. If people are really hurting, finding happiness is indeed a worthy goal.

    But I think this is what we’ve all been talking about: the romances that frustrate us, whether they are pure romance, or fantasy or sci-fi (to me Urban Fantasy has some of the worst romances ever) is when our sense of the stakes is upset. We’re reading along and we are told – this is the challenge that must be surmounted, it’s very important to the characters, and if it is not fixed, everything will be dire. If, after that, the characters get distracted and start spending complete chapters staring into each other’s eyes, and then the actual challenge is wrapped up with hardly any effort at all, it’s been a bait-and-switch, and we feel betrayed.

    Just because it’s a romance, doesn’t mean it’s important. You have to make it important. Make it organic. (And make it funny! People falling in love is really funny!) And then I’ll invest.

  31. Cara: yes–for some readers the stakes outside the couple will be most important, and for some the important stake is the relationship.

    Brenda: Suzanne Brockmann has been writing Navy SEAL romances for some years, and successfully, too. She’s one of those who has found that balance between the intimate moments and pulse-pounding tension in her stories.

  32. Suzanne Brockmann is an excellent example of hybrid romance that works, at least for me. Suzanne Brockmann did a lot of things that are still uncommon in genre romance, e.g. heroes and heroines of colour, interracial romances, gay characters and gay romances, love stories that take several books to develop and do not always take a straight path, characters switching love interests in mid series, etc… Plus, she really hits the balance between intimate space, action and other stuff. For example, some of her SEAL books feature characters who are working in the film industry (one regular character is an actor, another is a film producer) and you get a lot of stuff about how movies are made which at least to me is fascinating.

  33. Cora: Brockmann does intimate space in high-adrenaline danger situations very convincingly, which is an unusual combo with a romance focus.

  34. Wow, you know this is a good discussion when you start taking notes. As a reader who started out reading fantasy/scfi switched to romance in 1998 and has now switched back (for the most part) to fantasy/scfi I feel I can comment about on this question. However, I am only one reader and understand that other readers could want something different. My mom and I will trade books. Some things she reads and I just can’t get into. I switched to romance because I wanted the intimate space. I wanted to read about courtship and love. So why have I switched back?

    Because there is very little romance, courtship or even respect in most romance novels. Now I fully admit I do not mind sex scenes. Jo Leigh_ Arm Candy is a Harlequin Blaze. However, in this book the characters discover each other and want to spend time with each other. I had wondered why since I started reading fantasy romance in the late 1990’s why the plots and characters have gotten to be so similar. I think both you and Patricia have answered my question. There is now a formula. I think this might also the reason that Romance might be dismissed by some readers.

    Unlike with other writing genera where the author builds a world then goes through the painful process of finding a vehicle to get it out to the masses Romance has a formula. Follow the formula and you have a book. I totally agree with Janice I want a store about a RELATIONSHIP. Not lust but a relationship. When I read a sex scene and there is not the courtship build up to the characters hoping in bed, what I think … is she a slut? Does she sleep with everyone she is attracted to? Lenora, I love it “danger has me riled up, let’s have sex”. That is exactly what I hate! Where is the intimate space?
    I want to read good world building, which includes the relationship with another “human” being.

    Speaking of books with good world building and great characters, I just bought “coronet and steel” for a friend and her 13 year old daughter. I have already read it and thought Elizabeth (13 year old ) would like it. It is a devastating long plot on my part to get her away from the Twilight series. Her mom is on board with the plot.

  35. Deborah: I hope she likes it, though I suspect a lot of the history will sadly bore her. But re Twilight, time will get her away from it. That book (I believe) works like gangbusters for the thirteen year old’s worldview, or for those in touch with their inner thirteen year old. Chances are she will find Twilight “old hat” by the time she’s 16.

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  37. If I’m allowed, I’d like to stick my nose in and stand up for the boys a little.

    I’d just like to address the notion that romance novels are dismissed out of hand by men simply because they’re written by/for women, and that it’s deemed ‘inappropriate’ for women to garner such thoughts as, shock horror, lust or the need to be sexually fulfilled. I think it’s almost become a cliche to dismiss people who dismiss romance (if that makes sense!) as being in some way hypocritical or narrow-minded, or to say that their ambivalence stems solely from literary snobbery or even, as someone commented on earlier, that men snub romantic novels because they somehow feel threatened.

    Now, of course there will be people–a great many people and yes, many of them will be men–who fall into those categories, but I think it’s a bit too simplistic to make such sweeping generalisations.

    “…besides the obvious—written mostly by women, bought and read mostly by women, the main plot arc being finding a mate ending with hero and heroine as a committed couple.”

    I suspect that, rather than being “because” romance novels are (mostly) written/read by women, most men are put off romance novels “as a consequence” of their being written by/for women. The simple fact is that, precisely because these novels are written by/for women, they tend to focus on a main character who, over the course of the novel, falls in love with a man. And most men, I guess it’s a masculinity thing, just don’t find it comfortable being told that they should find Mr. Tall, Dark and Scary attractive. And they certainly don’t want to read about how good he is in bed. It’s not about feeling threatened–I should hope (I said ‘hope’!) most blokes know what sex is and how one goes about it–but I’d say its more about not feeling comfortable about being asked to imagine how great it feels to have this guy doing ‘stuff’ to you. At the end of the day, the books are designed (and meticulously scripted by the publishers) to give the lady readers what they want, and part of that is wanting to imagine how great Mr. Tall, Dark and Scary is in the sack; most men will never ever want to know (certainly not from the receiving end)!

    Me? I’m a hopeless romantic at heart: I love going “aaaaaah” at the end of films when at last the pair of them got their act together and admitted they never wanted to be apart again; I really enjoy books where I’m asked to imagine attractive characters (rather than, as many romance novels are formatted, asked to imagine characters and actually find them attractive) and watch those characters figure out what they want and how to get it; and yes, reading/watching romance is escapism, I want to be able to believe that “Happily Ever After” is possible. It’s just that my HEA ‘won’t’ be with another man, which is what most (I’ll concede not all) romance novels ask me to imagine, as they are (quite naturally–innevitably, even) almost always seen from the woman’s PoV. As soon as you take the book away from the woman’s PoV and put it to an impartial outsider (or, better yet, see the romance from his side) and you’ll get more blokes interested.

    As for the “Oh, it’s just porn, but for women” argument: there can be no doubting that a lot of romance books carry a lot of (often very graphic) sex, and when the book has a racey cover like a lot of them do (ALWAYS judge a book by its cover) then it’s not hard to see why people believe that certain books, marching under the Romance banner…focus more on the sex than the story. And it’s disingenuous for anybody to say that watching two (or more) other people having sex isn’t pornographic; just because the sex has been written rather than staged doesn’t somehow make it better.

    At the end of the day, the genre’s success speaks for itself. Publishers are clever people, they know what their readers want. And while you or I might want the romance to sneak in quietly via the back door while the two characters are actually focusing on the more imminent matter of escaping from the guillotine, clearly 50% of the readership ‘don’t’ want that; the other 50% can poo-poo all they like, but at the end of the day they’re the ones who are missing out.

    I would just say that the poo-pooing isn’t quite as steriotypical as…steriotypes…would suggest.

    (okay, I’ll sneak back into my hole)

  38. Stereotypes, even (sorry, had one of those moments where I could see the word wasn’t right but couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I’d done wrong!)

  39. Daniel: thanks for speaking up! It could be that today’s men are broader in their reading reach than in my generation, but I think I can safely say that not once, not one single time, ever, did I get anything but a sneering response from a male if I had a romance novel (obvious by its cover) in public. Not once. I usually tried to hide them, but sometimes forgot, then would come the cute little comments.

    But I am about to turn sixty, and times do change. Hurray for guys like you!