At the Back Fence #116

 (May 1, 2001)

On Disabilities in Romance (by LLB):
Last weekend I caught bits and pieces of two movies I want to share with you. One has been a long-time favorite that I first saw it as a young adolescent; the other is a movie that I’ve seen twice in the past couple of years – it is not a great movie by any means, or even a good one. The title of the former is Butterflies are Free; the latter’s title is Paperback Romance aka Lucky Break, which stands out in my mind as a guilty pleasure (not unlike the so-bad-it’s-good She, starring Sandahl Bergman).

Anthony LaPaglia (quite good with Mimi Rogers in Killer) and his wife Gia Carides star in Paperback Romance. Here’s the movie in a nutshell, spoilers included: Sophie, a writer of racy romance novels, is working on one of her stories in the library when Eddie overhears her. Sophie is embarrassed by her paralyzed leg from childhood polio and doesn’t know how she can get into a relationship with him, but when she breaks her leg, she has the perfect way of hiding her disability from Eddie…or so she thinks, until the moment when her Big Secret is revealed and Eddie can’t handle it. On the day of his wedding to the typical “horrible other woman,” he realizes he can’t go through with it, and, horrible woman that the other woman is, she turns him in to the authorities for his involvement in a jewelry heist that she was perfectly willing to overlook until he dumped her. Eddie goes on the lam, breaks into Sophie’s house at night when she’s getting a midnight snack and then there is a tearful reunion. After this touching scene – and it is actually is touching – they run off to a motel, only to have their night of passion cut short by the police. Eddie and Sophie marry during his trial. He is sent to prison for a short sentence, and when released, they presumably live happily ever after.

If my synopsis doesn’t sound cheesy enough, it’s because I haven’t done a good enough job in describing the movie. I know it’s supposed to be a parody of romance novels, but it’s far more mean-spirited and less effective as a parody than Dramatic License, an episode from the fifth season of Highlander: The Series, guest-starring Sandra Bernhard. (I mention this episode because it does a very smart job of handling the hero who leaves the heroine to avoid hurting her scenario). The romance novels Sophie writes are incredibly purple, and the scene when Eddie realizes she has a bum leg is rather gross. We won’t even get into the love scene they have near the end, when the police, listening from their cars with high-powered microphones, let them have their interlude out of respect for Sophie before breaking in. As sweet as that sounds, it’s hard to describe the full picture of the bed rocking back and forth and the cops listening in detail to all the screams of delight from within the hotel room.

Still, I regard Paperback Romance as a guilty pleasure, and whenever it’s on, I try to catch it. There’s something about it in its entirety that appeals to me. A far more universally appealing movie is Butterflies are Free, starring Goldie Hawn, Eddie Albert Junior, and Eileen Heckart. Originally a play, this is a love story between a free spirited young woman (read “hippie”) and a blind man who, until he meets the character played by Goldie, has been nothing so much as a mama’s boy. Watching the movie for the umpteenth time reminded me of a book on my tbr shelves, Christie Ridgway’s Wish You Were Here, featuring a hero who is blind, at least temporarily. After reading the book yesterday, I am now hooked on this author as I almost granted her most recent release, This Perfect Kiss DIK status. In a phone conversation with Robin last week, I mentioned Butterflies are Free. She told me how fondly she remembers To Race the Wind: An Autobiography, by Harold Krentz, who was the inspiration for the play and subsequent movie.

But, back to Wish You Were Here, Butterflies are Free, and all those other books and movies I’ve loved featuring characters with disabilities – what is it about these life challenges that appeals to me, that I find romantic? What is it about these life challenges that appeals to other readers, that they find romantic? After all, one of our most popular Special Title Listings is our Beauty is in the Eye… list, featuring not only characters who do not meet the standards of beauty for their time, but characters having physical, mental, or emotional maladies. Moonspun Magic, by Catherine Coulter, features a heroine who is partially lame and has a misshapen leg as a result. For much of the book she hides her deformity from her husband, but the scene when she hurts herself and he learns of the original injury is intensely poignant, and their first love scene following the revelation is particularly steamy.

The heroine in Stella Cameron’s Bride is firmly on the shelf because she is partially lame. She has been told throughout her life by a cruel grandmother that no man would ever want her. Still, she determines to take one last chance at romance, but needs a teacher – thus begins her seduction of her brother’s best friend. The sexual tension in this story positively sizzles because the author uses the hero’s honor to turn traditional sexual stereotypes upside down. The heroine becomes the seducer and the hero the seduced…at least it seems that way until they both get caught up in their lessons.

The follow-up to my favorite medieval romance, Catherine Archer’s Velvet Bond is Velvet Touch. While not as good as its prequel, VT is still a good read, featuring a hero who cannot believe his eyes when introduced to the drab, faded, and shabbily clothed heroine – she is the same luscious, naked wood nymph he earlier spied bathing in a hidden forest stream. When in the presence of others, this young woman with a club foot is cloaked by a gray demeanor, having accepted the lot in life her mother believes she must have – subservient, faded, and cloistered. She emerges from her cocoon virtually by the strength of his love.

Then there’s Ruth Langan’s medieval Highland Heather, with a terrific secondary romance between a man unable to walk and a lovely young woman. Though not the lead characters in this story, it made a terrific impact on me when I read it several years ago.

None of these stories are as well known as many of the other titles provided on our Beauty is in the Eye… list, which is why I made it a point to list them as examples today. There are more than 110 titles on that portion of the list, which begs the question – what is it about this type of romance that is so appealing?

Most women of roughly my age (plus or minus a few years) can remember reading The Other Side of the Mountain as they were growing up. This true story of a young woman preparing to ski at the Olympic level had a skiing accident that left her paralyzed. Then, of course, there’s the book Karen, which I read in elementary school and recently found a copy of on the Internet. Karen is the story of a young girl with severe cerebral palsey as told by her mother; it was written, I believe, in the 1950’s. Finally, as AAR Reviewer Jennifer Keirans reminded me, there’s the schmaltzy Robby Benson movie Ice Castles, about a young woman whose Olympic figure skating dreams are dashed after she is blinded in an accident. (FWIW, if you can’t remember the movie itself, you are sure to remember its theme song, Through the Eyes of Love.)

Each of these stories are about people overcoming terrible adversities in their lives – Karen’s story is all the more touching because neurological problems are not unknown in my own immediate family. In The Other Side of the Mountain, the young woman’s boyfriend at the time of her accident cannot cope with her paralysis and their relationship is ended. I don’t remember anyone who didn’t cry when reading that scene.

With that in the background, let’s talk more about romances with disabled characters. First of all, I think it’s more common for the disabled character to be the hero than the heroine. Why this is the case I’m not sure, although I have a theory. It’s likely that a disabled hero fits in with many women’s nurturer fantasies. Beyond that, though I think it’s also that having a heroine with a disability may hit too close to home for women, particularly if the disability is physical and not sensory-related. Yes, there is a fantasy for many/most women to be rescued. However, while it’s one thing to read a romance where the heroine is plain, albeit not in the eyes of the hero, it’s another altogether to read a romance where the disability is physical as opposed to sensory (blind, deaf). Deborah Simmons’ The Devil Earl has a great scene where the hero fantasizes about removing the heroine’s glasses – so many of us can relate to this, but would we relate to a scene where the hero fantasizes about removing the heroine’s prosthetic leg? Thinking about the applicable scenes in Paperback Romance have me thinking this is unlikely.

Contrast this with, say, Linda Howard’s Come Lie with Me, which features a paralyzed – at least for the moment – hero and the heroine who is brought into his life to be his physical therapist. While I can honestly say this book is not one of my favorite Howard reads, I know of many readers who found it terrific.

As serendipity would have it, reader Holly Ryan contacted me about this topic at the same time as I was reading Ridgway’s book. She takes a decidedly different path in thinking about this question; I’d like to share her message with you now. For purposes of this discussion, from both Holly and myself, we are not talking about disfigurement, but disability.)

When reading about disabled characters, especially the heroes or heroines of romance, one must ask the questions:

  • Does having a physical disability make a character more vulnerable? And, is that a good, or bad thing? Many disabled people in real life, lead fulfilling lives. From what can be observed, most “real people” do not obsess over their disabilities, like the disabled characters in romances do.
  • Is the disability portrayed by writers of romantic fiction, used to enhance the character’s persona? Or is the disability used to manipulate readers’ emotions?
  • There can be different types of disabilities used in romances. There is the Beauty and Beast-type story with some type of disfigurement, scars, birthmarks etc., usually borne by either the hero or heroine. Or there are the stories where there is some kind of physical disability – blindness, deafness, loss of the use of one or both limbs, etc.
  • Do romance authors ever do people with these various disabilities, a service? Or does it usually work, the other way? Do writers realistically portray a disabled character’s emotions or feelings? And, in historicals, is there any concern about accuracy regarding disabilities within a historical period? For example, some disabilities have been regarded as proven sins of the parents, messages from God, the Devil’s mark. Disabilities can be seen as bad luck; but, good luck as well. Scottish tradition suggested that touching an amputated limb, for example, would bring good luck.
  • It often seems that a disability used in a romance, is used to promote conflict between H/H. Otherwise, why are the disabilities of real-life characters, sometimes ignored? For example, Lord Byron had a club foot and walked with a pronounced limp. Do writers who fail to mention the limp, do so out of ignorance? Or, do they ignore the disability, out of the desire to make a book more romantic?
  • Why are the disabled and their abilities or disabilities, sometimes poorly portrayed? And, why aren’t readers concerned?Silent Melody by Mary Balogh is disliked by the deaf community. A reader who worries about historical accuracy, misogynist heroes, or TSTL heroines may well be satisfied by this book, but those with knowledge of deafness believe the portrayal is off the mark. Another example would be Faye Robinson’s portrayal of Mac, in A Man Like Mac. Mac is partially disabled and uses a wheelchair. For some readers, Mac is considered an inaccurate portrayal.Do readers, reviewers, authors continue to recommend books like Silent Melody or A Man Like Mac? Or do we take into account the opinions of those, who really are disabled?
  • What is the proper balance between political correctness and historical accuracy? The balance varies wildly, in historicals. Political correctness, or making a disability “normal” when history has proven this was not the “accurate” way, may be doing the disabled a disservice.

Holly’s negative references to Silent Melody and A Man Like Mac surprised me – we granted the former DIK status some time ago, and the latter received a grade of B. But AAR Reviewer Teresa Galloway, who has worked as an American Sign Language interpreter for several years and has taught ASL at Ithaca College and Cornell University, was not at all impressed by this Balogh book, although she has been a Balogh fan for some time. She indicated that she had to stop reading the book about one-third of the way through. She doesn’t recall her specific objections because this was several years ago, but wrote out for me her objections in general to romances involving deaf and hearing characters:

“What usually sets me off is the ease of communication that is usually portrayed between the hero and heroine even though the deaf character has virtually no successful communication with anyone else. Lack of successful communication with most hearing people makes sense in a historical, but somehow the hero always finds a way. I think in Silent Melody he may have worked out some sort of sign language with her, or else it was reading lips. If it was reading lips it’s absolutely preposterous. If it was a sign language of sorts it makes more sense, but even then I wouldn’t expect a makeshift communication system to allow for in depth conversations of the sorts h/h’s usually have. “Don’t get me wrong – ASL is a rich and varied language and using it you can discuss absolutely anything you want, but remember that ASL has evolved over hundreds of years (as have all natural languages) and the people who use it fluently have learned it from a young age. That wouldn’t have been the case here with some home sign system developed for their use alone.”

“A book I can discuss more eloquently is Catherine Anderson’s Annie’s Song. The heroine there is also deaf and since no one in her family can communicate with her they believe her to be mentally retarded. This is completely reasonable given the historical period. Many deaf people were thought to be retarded at that time. However, once the hero figures out that she’s not retarded, just deaf, he also finds out that she is an excellent lip reader. This is simply ludicrous. No way could she have learned to read lips on her own – her parents barely talked to her as it was, and when they did I’m sure they weren’t careful to face her directly. Even when taught by experts lip-reading is notoriously fallible and difficult to maintain for an entire conversation. (Some people it’s true are quite talented at it, but it helps to have some residual hearing as well). Try muting the sound sometime on the TV while watching the news or a sit-com or anything. Only 25% of what is spoken is lip-readable and that’s in good conditions. However, I have to admit that despite this huge flaw, I actually liked much of the book. Aside from the lipreading, other aspects of the character’s deafness were portrayed essentially accurately.”

On Disabilities in Romance (By Robin Uncapher):
When Laurie asked me to think about the appeal of romance novels about people with disabilities I was struck by the truth of what she said about their wide appeal. I’ve read some of the famous ones, including Justine Davis’ Holt trilogy, Mary Balogh’s Dancing with Clara, Donna Simpson’s Lord St. Clair’s Angel, which features a heroine with arthritis, and Mary Jo Putney’s Silk and Shadows which features a slightly lame heroine. It did seem to me that, although I know very little about being disabled, that all of these books treated people with disabilities with the respect that they deserve because they are characters first and their disabilities do not define them as people.

Nevertheless, the more I thought about it the more I realized that romance novels treat the disabilities themselves rather gently. Historicals tend to include disabilities that either can be overcome or do not overly restrict the hero or heroine’s life. While a modern hero or heroine may be wheelchair bound, the fact that the disability is portrayed at all seems to reflect our assumption that a man or woman confined to a wheelchair can live a relatively unrestricted life. Such characters are portrayed driving, living alone and continuing their careers. A good example of this would be Justine Davis’ wheelchair bound hero, Dar Cordell, in The Morning Side of Dawn. But we know that people who were unable to walk in the 19th century were often confined to bed and that seems to be too sad a prospect for a hero or heroine in a historical.

Heroes and heroines in historicals either recover their ability to walk or were never that disabled in the first place. For example, Anne Gracie’s Gallant Waif portrays a veteran who has lost some use of his legs, but not all. The pain of being disabled and the inability of people in the 19th century to treat pain effectively is usually avoided. Lord St. Clair’s Angel struck me as unusually candid with its admission that warm baths were virtually the only treatment available. At the end of the book the heroine is ensured an easier life, because she will be more prosperous and have someone to help her soak her sore limbs, but she is not recovered. I liked this about the book. In the other extreme is Cassie Edwards’ Savage Fires, in which the wheelchair bound heroine seems to be wheeling herself all over the neighborhood, as though the Americans with Disabilities Act had already been in force. This heroine miraculously regains her ability to walk in order to save her father from a fire. Like many of the heroines in very old movies her problem had apparently been more psychological than physical. As irritated as I was by this heroine when she was in the wheelchair, I was even more annoyed with her for shedding her disability so effortlessly.

Early this year we talked about romances in which amnesia drives the story. If you will recall, most romances featuring amnesia are based on very little science and, as such, are not terribly realistic. This is perhaps the case as well for romances involving characters with disabilities. Most of us have fallen in love with romances where realism had long ago flown out the window. Let’s investigate this in terms of romances with disabilities, and also discuss why this type of romance is romantic. If you’d like to expand the discussion to include the romance factor of the Beauty and the Beast myth, be our guest – Amy Fetzer’s recent Taming the Beast is a perfect example of how this fantasy can make for a very effective romance.

Disabilities and Other “Issue” Romances (by LLB):
I would venture to say that, other than beauty and the beast romances, readers of more than perhaps twenty years ago would not have welcomed romances starring disabled characters. As we all have become more attuned to special needs and as our society has begun to better integrate differences, the romances we read have begun to reflect that openness. Certainly that is the case where “issue” romances are concerned. In Neesa Hart’s 1999 release A Kiss to Dream On, for instance, she wrote not only about deafness, she also tackled the socio-political climate surrounding it, including the controversy of Cochlar implants.

Certain authors lend an aura of authenticity to the issues they write about – knowing that Pamela Morsi’s daughter is mentally disabled makes her Simple Jess all the more poignant. When I met the author back in 1996, she shared that Jess had been a secondary character in another romance, but he was “so good there he wanted his own story.” Morsi was surprised her publisher agreed to release a romance starring a mentally disabled hero, and was also concerned whether readers would accept it. They did – in droves.

On the other hand, there are those romances, such as the Cassie Edwards romance Robin described, that do not seem authentic to readers. Then there are those romances that do not do a good job of incorporating the issue at hand into the narrative flow of the story. Haven’t you read more than a few “issue” romances where you felt you were being preached to by the author?

Earlier this year AAR Technical Editor Sandi Morris brought to my attention a series of romances written by Tara Taylor Quinn. The Shelter Valley series of category romances, which also includes the single title contemporary Sheltered in His Arms, out last month, tackles some issues we don’t often read about in romance novels, and, according to Sandi, does so in a very effective manner. In the first book – Becca’s Baby – the heroine, age 42, and long unable to conceive, is finally pregnant and contemplates having an abortion for a variety of reasons. The second book – My Sister, Myself – features spousal abuse – not necessary a novel concept in romance, but not something you come across every day, either. The third book – White Picket Fences – features a golf pro whose sexuality is questioned. What makes this third book all the more intriguing is that the hero’s ex-wife left him for another woman. Neither she nor her lover are shown negatively, and considering how many homosexual characters are negatively depicted in romances, this really stands out.

We asked Tara to talk about tackling difficult issues. Here’s what she had to say….


On Issue Romances

When I write my books, I don’t focus on issues, difficult or otherwise. I write about the people who live inside my mind. Real people with real problems. For every person on this earth now and ever there is a story, a unique conglomeration of experiences, choices and circumstances that shape him into the individual that he is. Every book I write is simply the telling of those key experiences, choices and circumstances for the two people I’m writing about. If their experiences include issues, the issues must be there. I think the key is that I don’t write about the issues. I write about the people.

As a story idea takes shape in my mind, it’s the people who are coming to life for me. Much like meeting a new person and getting to know them and becoming their friend. I’ll have a book mentally plotted before I even realize there’s a difficult subject in there. Just as when a friend is telling me in confidence about an abusive ex-husband, I see her, I see the experience she is describing as a real scene in my mind, I feel her pain, and I feel anger that she had to feel that pain. I don’t think – oh this is an issue. We’re dealing with spousal abuse here. And I certainly don’t start with, gee, what issue haven’t I done? Think I’ll write about abortion. What abortion story can I think up?

I firmly believe that good people are sometimes led by circumstances to make bad choices, but that doesn’t make them bad people. I also believe that someone who has not always been a good person can be so deeply effected by something that they see another way, they learn, rise above, and with determination and honest repentance, become a good person. These are the types of people I write about. They’re people who have lived and suffered in today’s world, making choices that the people around me make, fighting the demons I see people fight every day. And as they find their solutions, so do I.

That said, I am conscious, when I’m writing about touchy subjects, that people see choices differently, that two good people might be on opposite sides of a touchy subject. In cases like that I try to see both sides, to get into the mind set of each side of the situation and then present both sides. It is not my job as an author to present one belief over another. It is my job to tell the story. All of it. Or at least as much of it as I’m capable of seeing. But even here, I don’t look at the issue, I look at the people on both sides of it, tell their story, and in the telling, the issue is seen.

More on Guilty Pleasures (by LLB):
Anyone who will admit to enjoying a movie they’ve called “cheesy,” “mean-spirited,” and “gross” is obviously an aficionado of guilty pleasures. I have so many guilty pleasures that it’s hard to know where to start. They exist in every facet of my life, from food to television to movies to books to hobbies. For instance, I prefer Hershey’s to Godiva, and when we eat a rich dessert at a restaurant, I never order whatever the chocolate item is because it’s invariably the sophisticated kind that doesn’t appeal to me. Even my daughter has a better developed dessert palate than I.

I love cheesy television too – give me Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heroes, and have I mentioned how underrated Barney Miller was? Same for movies; I have an extensive collection of tapes I either bought or taped from cable, satellite or UHF television, but do I have Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart? No, I have Humphrey Bogart in We’re No Angels. Give me a musical or comedy from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s (even the 60’s if starring Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin) and I’m happy as a clam. I can tell you which movie introduced Ma and Pa Kettle to the world, and it wasn’t a Ma and Pa Kettle movie, btw. Most people my age haven’t even heard of Ma and Pa Kettle, and yet I can speak at length about several of their cornpone movies with fond memories.

As for books, I’m still not completely out of the closet on series romances; for me they are a guilty pleasure. I can read one in an evening and enjoy it even if it’s only a C read because I was able to read it all at once. Certain series authors tend to write the same book over and over again, but I still read ’em like candy. I have gone an extended glom of series romances in the past couple of years of backlisted and current titles by a number of authors even though very few of them were much better than average at best, and often were worse (and occasionally far worse). Marcia Evanick comes to mind. Back in 1998 I read one of her 1997 Loveswept titles and gave it a grade of C+. Last year I tried one of her more recent Zebra Bouquet titles, and couldn’t finish it. But one day late several months ago when we were at the library and I was sulking about my daughter’s being able to find eight books to check out while I had nothing, I grabbed an old Evanick because the title sounded fun – it was called Out of a Dream. It was cute enough, in a very minor way. When I was at my favorite new/used bookstore shortly thereafter, I felt compelled to buy my very own copy of it – to have forever – along with several other Marcia Evanick Loveswepts. Can you imagine? I feel guilty just thinking about it!

AAR Reviewer Jennifer Keirans takes us into her own world of guilty pleasures, and that of some of her AAR colleagues. Guilty Pleasures

Not long ago, my fellow AAR reviewer Linda Hurst mentioned to me that Diana Palmer’s series romances are favorites of hers. I’d never read them, but my library had several in large print editions, so I checked them out. The librarian gave me an amused smile that didn’t bode well for the reading experience before me; but by the end of the weekend, I had devoured them all, and I’ve ordered more on interlibrary loan.

Today I bought some old Palmers at the used book store. When I spend actual money on books that I don’t want to be seen reading in public, I can no longer deny it even to myself – I’m in the midst of a full-scale glom for guilty pleasure.

In case you’re new to Palmer’s contemporary works, allow me to present a brief summary. I’m by no means an expert on Palmer, but from my reading so far, I’d say that a typical plot goes something like this:

The heroine is virginal and sheltered. The hero is at least ten years older, terribly alpha, and has issues with virgins and/or women in general. The hero and heroine experience intense attraction, but the fact that she is a virgin is the primary conflict between them. In The Tender Stranger, he marries her in order to have sex with her, because nice girls should get married first (surely the silliest reason for marriage I’ve ever read). In Enamored, they have sex and then are forced to marry by her indignant daddy, so he hates her for trapping him. In Heart of Ice he doesn’t believe that she’s a virgin at all, and her presumed non-virginity apparently gives him an excuse to harass and belittle her on every possible occasion.

In every single Palmer book I’ve read, the hero, once he realizes that he’s falling in love with the heroine, does something deliberately vicious to drive her away. In Soldier of Fortune, a secondary character explains it this way: “Have you ever known a fighting fish to lie down when he hit the bait? Don’t expect to draw him in without a little effort.”

You read that right: in Palmer’s world, finding love is like fishing, and a woman’s virginity is bait.

In my opinion, the plots of these books range from ridiculous to offensive, with few stops in between. Ellen Michelletti summed it up nicely when she said, “I don’t like Diana Palmer’s males. They are cruel, they smoke and they have Lolita complexes.” It’s true. So why do I keep reading these books?

Maybe it has something to do with the very similarity of the novels. Using the same basic elements (one man, one woman, one hymen), how many different situations can one author possibly come up with? Will the plots start to repeat? So far Palmer has been respectably inventive. If I branch out into Palmer’s historicals, will the basic situation change, or will Palmer be dealing the same cards against a different cloth?

But this isn’t entirely an intellectual exercise for me, much as I would like to claim it is. The truth is, I’m kind of enjoying seeing all these strong alpha men bow to the will of sweet little women, again and again and again. In spite of my strong convictions about the equality of women and a woman’s right to be free of the kind of sexual double-standards (did she say fishing??) that Palmer seems to delight in, I still get a little thrill of victory, every time.

For me, that’s what a guilty pleasure is. I feel that I shouldn’t like it. But I do.

I did an informal poll, and found that we here at AAR blushingly enjoy a wide variety of pleasures that we wouldn’t necessarily boast about, from ‘80s hair bands to comic books to James Bond movies. As far as novels go, Robin admits that she loves Scruples by Judith Krantz. Heidi Haglin, “Give me a Johanna Lindsey bodice-ripper and a bag of Brach’s Bridge Mix and leave me alone!” Jennifer Schendel is a fan of Sandra Brown’s older romances, in spite of what Jen calls Brown’s “fondness for naming heroes after inanimate objects, TSTL heroines, and some very ick plots.”

Katarina Wikholm confessed:

“I’m about as liberal as they come, but I admit (with blushing cheeks) that sometimes… this is embarrassing… those medieval knight heroes who can be so rough & harsh to the heroine can be pretty titillating. A guilty pleasure for me in this context is when the heroine shows the semblance of common sense. A bad book is the same setting with a feisty, mouthy, 20th-century-liberated heroine! I guess it is the path of the heroine, of climbing out of the sludge of maltreatment with honor and balance, that sets me off.”

As I read through the AAR reviewers’ comments, I noticed that this was a definite trend. Katarina is not alone in loving – in fiction – men she wouldn’t necessarily want to deal with in real life. Kelly Parker specified that her favorite guilty pleasure is stocked with just such manly men:

“My number-one guilty pleasure has got to be the Ly-San-Ter series by Johanna Lindsey. As a feminist, I should hate everything about these books because they are set on a planet where the women have to obey the men. But I gobbled up Warrior’s Woman and its sequel, Keeper of the Heart, in one night apiece. I loved them and hated myself for loving them. I’ve never totally figured out the appeal, but I think it’s because they take the alpha male that many of you have talked about to the nth degree, with the entire society being that way, so the heroes are easier to forgive: They’re products of their society, and they’re not cruel like many über-alphas.”

Marianne Stillings admits she loves “dark heroes, intense men, and the more serious romances. I like strong, dominating heroes – arrogant, virile, and utterly manly. Totally sexy to me. Having said that, I would hate to be married to one; I couldn’t tolerate him for an instant. But I think there’s something in me that finds this kind of hero attractive in a book because he’s safe.”

Like me, several reviewers like to see these strong alpha heroes (eventually) submit to the wishes of female characters. The heroes of our guilty pleasures may suffer from testosterone poisoning at the beginning of the book, but they’re pussycats by the end, thanks to the love of a good woman.

This preference is clear in Jane Jorgenson’s favorite guilty pleasure: the romances of Betty Neels. Jane said:

“Yes, all those doctor/nurse stories where he never tells her he loves her and vice versa until the last page of the book….The heroines are usually on the plain side, sometimes plump, and the hero is almost always almost engaged to some snobby, aristocratic, slender model type. I guess I just love how the plump, plain woman gets the man, of course it’s because of her gentle, nurturing ways (she’s been a nurse after all).”

Rachel Potter wrote that she isn’t always bothered by a cruel hero, so long as he’s truly changed his ways by the end. “I kind of like it if they are mocking or mean,” she said. “Sebastian Verlaine (of Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold) was frankly one sick bastard, but I loved, loved, loved that book. They have to grovel, though. That’s the rule.”

Linda, for whom Diana Palmer is a huge guilty pleasure, wrote that “Some of those Marlboro men (Palmer’s heroes!) are soooo alpha, but she is the Queen of the ‘great grovel’ – when these guys see the light they are just delicious. In fact if I only want to read for 15 or 20 minutes before bedtime, I pick up a Palmer and start reading at the ‘great grovel scene’ and read to the end – puts a smile on my face every time.”

This is not the sort of thing to make any self-respecting feminist swell with pride, but clearly what we like is not always what we feel we should like.

Of course, it must be said that one reader’s guilty pleasure may be another reader’s obnoxious wall-banger, and yet another reader’s honest delight. Diana Palmer certainly has her share of fans who do not feel any need for guilt in their enjoyment of her novels, nor should they. And yet, since there always seems to be one naysayer in the bunch, here are LLB’s comments about Diana Palmer:

“The first contemporary romance I ever read was Diana Palmer, using her Susan Kyle pseudonym. Never one for moderation myself, rather than simply buying one of her books, I bought two. One was Night Fever. I can’t remember the name of the other because simply thinking about it makes me shudder. I wouldn’t read another contemporary romance for several years after these two books because I was so horrified about how Kyle portrayed these women and the men they loved.”

For more on the guilty pleasure phenomenon, you might want to refresh your memory with this earlier ATBF segment on romances you hate to love. We can’t wait to hear about your own guilty pleasures!


Time to Post to the Message Board:
Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:


histbut Romance and the Disabled – Let’s start this off by looking nostalgically at the books and/or movies we remember from our youths that were romantic and featured a disabled character? Which titles come to mind? What do you most remember about them?

histbut More on Romance and the Disabled – Let’s move the discussion to romance novels now. Are you an aficianado of romances starring a disabled character? Do you seek these out, read them if they happen to come your way, or actively shy away from them? Regardless of your answer, share the reasons why you read them or don’t read them, and why you find them appealing (or not).

histbutDisabled Heroes, Disabled Heroines – When you read a romance featuring a disabled character, does it matter whether the character is the hero or the heroine? If so, why? Would it matter, where the disability is physical rather than sensory-related or emotional in genesis?

histbutThe Accuracy Nitpick – The accurate portrayal of the disabled in some romances has been called into question. Just as there are some readers who care not a whit for historical accuracy while others are concerned about the most minor of historical details, there is likely a continuum where disabilities are concerned. Tell us where you fall, and if there are romances you felt portrayed a disability either with excellent or dismal results, please let us know.

histbutBeauty and the Beast – We’re going to jump ahead with this topic. Although it is not part of this issue of ATBF, we’d like to talk about it very soon. How do you feel about the very gothic beauty and the beast myth? Some would say that this is a dangerous fantasy for women because is perpetuates bad treatment of women by angry men, but others of us positively melt when we read a book based on this myth. What worked for you, and what didn’t? Please share titles and authors.

histbutGuilty Pleasures – Do you have any guilty pleasures? What is it about these things that makes them “guilty” pleasures? Do you limit your enjoyment of guilty pleasures or partake of them often?

histbutDiana Palmer as Guilty Pleasure? – Do you agree with Jennifer’s portrayal of Diana Palmer’s books as guilty pleasures? This is an author readers either seem to love or hate. If you think she’s simply an unabashed pleasure, let us know. If she’s a guilty pleasure, let us know. If you, as LLB does, don’t even like to think about her, let us know.

histbutYour Romance Reading Guilty Pleasures – We’re not going to let you off the hook with Diana Palmer. Now it’s your turn to share with us your romance reading guilty pleasures. What books and/or authors can you list, and why do you almost hate to love them?



In conjunction with Holly Ryan, Teresa Galloway, Tara Taylor Quinn, and Jennifer Keirans



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