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At the Back Fence #141

July 1, 2002 

Don’t head into summer without the AAR Bookbag!

This issue of At the Back Fence comes courtesy of Robin Uncapher, who talks about sex and marriage, and Mary Sophia Novak, who interprets the in-house results of our recent style poll. The next ATBF will provide results and interpretation of this poll for all who participated, including well over two hundred readers. It’s also where the winner in our sixth annual Purple Prose Parody Contest will be announced (you still have time to vote!).

When Heroes and Heroines are Lovers (Robin Uncapher)

One of the most important discussions that I ever had about sex, was with a nun.

No, I’’m not kidding.

When I was in the eighth grade we public school Catholics had religious instructions once a week after school. One afternoon the boys in our little class were absent, leaving ten of us girls with Sister Marie George. Taking advantage of the lack of boys in the room, we decided to ask Sister her thoughts about boys and “”making out”.” (We were really dying to know why Sister had decided to give up men but were too embarrassed to ask.) Why, we wanted to know, was making out wrong. What was wrong with it?

After ascertaining that “making out,” in our lexicon meant a lot of kissing and a bit of messing around but not IT, Sister told us that “there is nothing wrong with kissing.”

Ah, we said, then why does everyone tell us it’s bad?

“Well”, said Sister, “it is not that it’s bad. The trouble is, that boys and girls think about it differently. You girls think it is romantic. If you get alone with a boy and make out with him a lot, you are going to feel differently about him than if you didn’t. The boy might not feel the same way. So it’s better not to “make out” with someone you aren’t sure of, because if you do, it confuses things.”

Now I ask you, have you ever heard anyone explain it better?

I’ve been thinking about Sister and her thoughts on sex quite a bit lately. It seems to me that what Sister was trying to tell us was that sex changes things even when we don’t want it to. A woman who has sex (or a fourteen year old girl who “makes out”) with a man/boy she likes, and is attracted to, may end up falling in love with him. This has always made sense to me. Try as I might (and I really have tried) the idea that sex can be good, over a period of time without love mystifies me. Maybe this is why I love romance novels. In romance novels, especially in Regency marriage of convenience stories, people often discover they are in love as the result of having sex. Sometimes it even forces them to face what could have been ignored.

Of course in real life the opposite sometimes happens. Two people are attracted, come together and something doesn’t click. The spark doesn’t ignite. When that happens they often decide that what they have is not really right for a permanent relationship. This is not because sex is the most important thing in a relationship, or even the least important thing. It is because when sex is not good it can subtly change the way you feel just as much as sex changes things when its good. People having bad sex don’t feel really intimate. There is something missing and the relationship between people having bad sex is different than a couple that is not having sex at all.

In books where a hero and heroine are married it is not necessary to actually show sex to demonstrate the effect that sex is having on a relationship. Margaret Mitchell simply had Scarlett reflect that marriage was “fun,” and we knew how things were going. Tolstoy did even less with Anna and Vronsky in Anna Karenina and yet we knew that once this couple slept together Anna would be incapable of leaving and would be doomed.

What got me thinking about all of this was reading Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract, a book where the hero and heroine are sleeping together with absolutely no effect on the marriage outside of a pregnancy.. A Civil Contract is a fairly controversial book, even among Heyer devotees. It’s a fairly standard marriage of convenience story elevated by the marvelous characterization of both the hero and heroine and a score of secondary characters so distinctive that they stand in memory months after reading the book. In the story, the hero, Adam Deveril, returns from the war after his father’s death. Upon assuming his title he finds his family’s finances in shambles. Adam is engaged to a beautiful young woman, Julia. When he learns that he has no money and will probably have to sell the family estate, Adam goes to Julia and cries off. Though Julia is shallow and immature it is clear that she really does love Adam, and she begs to marry him anyway. Both Adam and Julia’s family agree that that would not be the best course, and so Adam is on his own. Julia is devastated.

Enter Adam’s wealthy banker who offers to make all of Adam’s financial problems disappear if Adam would only marry his rather plain and plump daughter Jenny. Adam does this and what ensues is, for the most part, a very good marriage of convenience story. Adam is in love with Julia but behaves perfectly and does his best to make Jenny happy. Julia makes things difficult and, in the end, reveals herself to be a shallow and selfish woman, one who is far inferior to Jenny.

Jenny is a matter of fact kind of person. She focuses on making Adam a home and making him comfortable, rather than making him fall in love with her romantically. But it obvious through all of this that Jenny has fallen deeply in love with Adam.

Adam is a wonderful hero, devoted to his family and determined to do the right thing for everyone. Though he loves Julia, it is beyond his control and he does his best, not only to behave honorably but to save Jenny any distress.

Toward the end of the book Jenny becomes pregnant. Julia visits the couple (they have become friends of sorts) and is privately shocked but also mortified that she had not realized that this was inevitable. Then later Julia makes a scene which disappoints Adam so much that he no longer regrets not marrying her.

What is controversial about the book occurs on the last few pages. I have to say that I absolutely loved A Civil Contract up to the end. These last words however cast a pall over the entire book for me. The following paragraph comes just after Adam has told Jenny he loves her:

“A little pang smote her. She wanted to ask him: Do you love me as much as you loved her? She was too inarticulate to be able to utter the words; and in a minute knew that it would be foolish to do so. Searching his eyes she saw the warmth in them, and tenderness but not the ardent flame that had once kindled them when he looked at Julia. She hid her face in his shoulder thinking that she too had once had an impractical dream. But she had always known that she was too commonplace and matter of fact to inspire him with the passionate adoration that he felt for Julia. Probably Adam would always carry Julia in some corner of his heart.”

Then, after some additional thoughts on Julia, comes the following:

“Yet, after all, Jenny thought that she had been granted more than she had hoped for when she had married her. He did love her; differently, but perhaps more enduringly; and he had grown to depend on her. She thought they would have many years of quiet content; never reaching the heights but living together in comfort and deepening friendship. Well you can’t have it both ways, she thought, and I couldn’t live in alt all the time, so I dare say I’m better off as things are.”

Um, could I cut in here? Since when can you not have it both ways? Perhaps after years of marriage one cannot, but how about the first year? One cannot help but wonder sadly about Heyer’s own romantic life if that is the way she felt. And as for Adam, what the heck has he been doing with his bride to make her pregnant? If he’d been enjoying himself wouldn’t that have put a bit of a spark in his eye?

According to Jane Hodge’s wonderful biography The Private World of Georgette Heyer, Heyer felt that sex and love were two entirely different things and that who a man had sex with or wanted to have sex with, didn’t necessarily influence whom he loved. Therefore, in Heyer’s world, infidelity is not terribly important. Heyer felt that it was in the nature of men to be unfaithful but that a woman with an unfaithful husband could still control the marriage and that that was what was important.

I thought of this the other day when AAR Reviewer Rachel Potter described a Betty Neels book she had read that seemed to have the same sensibility. Rachel wrote:

An Unlikely Romance was a marriage of convenience story about an English nurse who marries a Dutch doctor. Now, you have to do a number on a marriage of convenience story to get me not to like it. This book wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t at all, in any way, exciting. The hero and heroine didn’t even interact that much. It was mostly about the heroine trying to fit in amongst her new husband’s friends and piddling around at home. Zzzzzz.And the kicker was that this handsome, youngish doctor married her because he wanted a social secretary. He didn’t even expect they would have sex. And he had no intention of getting any elsewhere. I cannot imagine a bright, handsome doctor in his forties foregoing sex for the rest of his life.”

This story reminded me of Agnes Sligh Turnbull’s The Wedding Bargain (1966), a book I wrote about in the April 1, 2000 At the Back Fence. Like the Neels book, Turnbull’s book is a marriage of convenience story. The marriage is between the executive hero Dan Morgan and his long suffering secretary, Eliza Hanford. Though the marriage is not totally sexless it might as well be. It is referred to as being so mechanical that the two gave it up.

When I read this book as a 12-year-old, I remember pondering this, but eventually accepting it. When I read it as a long married woman with two children, I found myself giggling at first and then discovering that the whole thing depressed me. What kind of a society produces books about people in love, who have sex, and find it boring? Is this denial or what? Whatever Sister George’s personal experience with men, she knew a heck of a lot more about human relations than Agnes Sligh Turnbull. She knew that sex changes things. She knew that if a woman is in love with a man, as Eliza is supposed to be, she will see the absence of sex as rejection. She knew that a man who is attracted to the woman he is married to, he is going to have sex with her, regardless of whether he is in love.

When I mentioned this to Rachel, she also thought that the Neels book revealed an overriding philosophy about the influence of sex on a relationship :

“Well, the way Neels tells the story in An Unlikely Romance certainly would seem to reveal a lot about how she apparently felt about sex. I know she was writing to an audience of women who don’t approve of sex outside of marriage and who would probably consider reading a love scene a sin. But I’ve read lots of books that have no love scenes and still manage to simmer with sexual tension. Even in the Christian market, there are authors who do sexual tension pretty well. Janette Oke and Francine Rivers come to mind. Their books do not explore sex at all, but you can still tell that the characters are very attracted to each other.”A love scene, like no other kind of scene, is able to show the emotions and the vulnerabilities of both the hero and the heroine. In marriage of convenience stories I like it much better when the consummation comes right away. The wedding night is such a tense situation, filled with awkwardness and the potential for emotional damage or (possibly) repair, and since it is so innately jam-packed with emotion, the author has much to mine. How the hero handles that night shows a great deal about his character, since the situation is a coerced one and, in historicals, the heroine is basically his chattel at that point. He can do with her what he likes. What is it that he likes to do?””

I find this interesting for two reasons. First this feeling that sex should be shown to have an influence on a relationship does not mean that books need to be graphic. I find Anna Karenina to be one of the most sensuous and insightful books about a woman’s sexuality ever written. Sex between the married Anna and her lover Vronsky is never described, but from the moment the two begin having relations the balance between the two changes. Part of this is the terrible guilt Anna feels for committing adultery. Another part is the sense of belonging physically to a man to whom she is not married. Here are some of Anna’s thoughts as she speaks to Vronsky soon after they have made love for the first time:

“‘Not a word more,’ she repeated, and with a look of chill despair, incomprehensible to him, she parted from him. She felt that at that moment she could not put into words the sense of shame, of rapture, and of horror at this stepping into a new life, and she did not want to speak of it, to vulgarize this feeling by inappropriate words. But later too, and the next day, and the day after, she still found no words in which she could express the complexity of those feelings; indeed, she could not even find thoughts in which she could clearly think out all that was in her soul.”

Maybe this was just sex to Vronsky (it wasn’t) but to Anna sex was a turning point in her life.

Which brings me to an interesting point. When an author has her hero and heroine make love during the book, as opposed to the end of the story, she risks letting the steam out of the story. All love stories need tension and in many old-fashioned love stories the tension is maintained by keeping the lovers physically apart until that last kiss. Heyer does this in many of her books and it works very well but her marriage of convenience stories seem slightly out of kilter because the hero and heroine continue to behave the same toward each other as if they had not had sex.

AAR reviewer Sandy Coleman agreed. She said “When I look back at Heyer, the marriage of convenience stories (perhaps for the very reasons Robin articulates so well) are the least of my favorites. Instead, I prefer Sylvester, Frederica, Arabella, and, my very favorite of all, Devil’s Cub.”

The more I thought about the way that most romances today acknowledge sex and deal with the heroines feelings about it, the more I realized that today’s romance writers have succeeded in doing something fairly new. Few older books manage to maintain tension the way post-1980’s books do. Most of the 70’s-early-80’s books seemed to maintain the tension with the Rosemary Rodgers “Sweet Savage Love I-Hate-You-Lets-Have-Sex” formula. But in the later-80’s-90’s a great many writers have managed to write good books where the hero and heroine have sex, care for each other and still maintain tension until the end.

The key to this, I think, is holding the words “I love you” hostage to the end of the book. Mary Balogh’s Thief of Dreams is a brilliant example. In that book the hero, a typical 19th century man, demands that his wife share his bed regardless of their problems. The book ends up with lots of steam and chemistry despite the fact that the two are having relations. At the same time the relations don’t have the I-Hate-You-Lets-Have-Sex quality. The husband is simply expecting his due.

What is interesting of course, is that the reader knows that these two are in love even when the hero and heroine don’t know it themselves. While they are thinking “I’m so excited but this is just lust,” the reader realizes that it is love. This to me, is the crux of the problem in the old mid-twentieth century romances where a couple in love has married sex and doesn’t enjoy it. Though in real life people may have happy marriages with bad sex, its not romantic. I don’t want to read about a hero who would happily live celibate. I am disappointed in one who has sex with his heroine wife and still lacks a sparkle in his eye.

And I am wondering what all of you think. How does sex change a relationship when people are in love? Is it different for men and women? Do you enjoy it when that is demonstrated in romance novels? How do you feel about a hero who doesn’t care about sex? How should a hero and heroine feel when they are married, having sex, but not sure they are in love. What books have you read that demonstrate this well? What books have you read where it has not worked.

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.


The Elements of Style (Mary Sophia Novak)

When Teresa Galloway created a preliminary poll for the AAR staff, I was fascinated by the results. I had tried to wrap my mind around the knotty problem of how to draw connections between authors’ styles, how to link them according to abstract qualities without being distracted by each author’s setting. Wouldn’t most Carla Kelly fans be eager to learn of an author whose style makes a similar impact to Kelly’s writing, even if the stories weren’t traditional Regencies? It seems comparatively simple to categorize authors according to setting (contemporary, paranormal) and to serious or humorous tone. (Actually, if you listen closely you can probably hear the hollow laughter of Rachel Potter, the “If You Like” list-reviser with the thousand-yard stare, who will be the first to tell you that even evaluating for those two factors alone is no simple task.)

But if dividing authors by setting and tone is difficult, quantifying the ineffable qualities that comprise style is harder still. If one author’s humor comes mainly from slapstick action while another is a supreme ironist, will they appeal equally to the same audience? Are all SEALs created equal? Is it really possible that a sweeping Scottish epic’s closest stylistic bedfellow may be an erotically charged vampire hunter?

That last question goes to one of my own quirky examples of how author’s styles can match up even when their content has nothing in common: to me, no writer is more stylistically similar to Diana Gabaldon, author of the epic historical Outlander series, than Laurell K. Hamilton of the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. No, wait, hear me out: Both series have strong heroines who narrate their stories in the first person. Both have an epic sweep and follow the same characters across multiple volumes, and share a similar wry, dark humor. Most of all, both stories’ narratives seem to barrel along on the same runaway freight train. Both Gabaldon and Hamilton leave me reeling from their prodigious, but uncontrolled, storytelling gifts. They have both carried me up unexpectedly to dizzying heights, but have also dropped me down with the sickening fear that they may have lost the thread of their stories and jumped the tracks entirely. I don’t know of another author who provides quite the same roller-coaster rush as Gabaldon and Hamilton do, and for this the two are linked inextricably in my mind. It’s not the most obvious connection (I’m willing to admit I may be the only person who believes in it) and it won’t do the Outlander fan who can’t stand vampires much good. But the Gabaldon/Hamilton connection is the kind of abstract match-up that I especially hope to see result from our poll.

In the next ATBF we’ll report on the reader poll and draw conclusions about how favorite authors link together. With only 20 respondents in the staff poll, it’s much harder to pinpoint trends, but here are a few preliminary observations based on the ballot’s key:

Ballot Key4 Always or Almost Always Like3 Like More Often Than Not2 Sometimes Like, Sometimes Don’t Like1 Rarely Enjoy/Didn’t Like the One Book Tried0 Never TriedJ Jumped the Shark (used in conjunction with a number)

  • The only author all 20 of us have read is Susan Elizabeth Phillips. However, 18 of the 36 authors have been read by at least 16 staff members apiece.
  • 15 of us have read J.D. Robb, and gave her a 93% approval rating (10 4’s and 4 3’s.) However, although 19 of us have read Nora Roberts, her approval rating is much lower (47%.)
  • Of the seven staffers who gave Susan Elizabeth Phillips a 4, the three who have also tried Laura Kinsale each gave her a 1.
  • Love them or hate them, 7 of the 11 staffers who have tried both Laura Kinsale and Judith Ivory gave them equally positive, negative, or neutral scores. (For this I’m counting 4 and 3 both as “positive.”)
  • 7 of the 9 staffers who have tried both Patricia Gaffney and Carla Kelly gave them the same positive, negative, or neutral scores.

While it was interesting to read these conclusions, equally fascinating was to read each staff member’s ballot as it came in. (A chart with our results is posted here, along with the total round-table discussion we had on the poll.) The ballots proved to be an index of each reviewer’s personal tastes, both how we are similar and how we differ.

I was especially struck when Teresa reported her preliminary results and LLB commented: “I’ve often thought there was a trifecta: Kinsale, Gaffney, and Ivory are often authors who appeal to the more intellectual readers.”

Ever since I joined AAR, I’ve heard statements about those three authors’ “intellectual appeal;” probably made some of them myself. And since I happen to like Kinsale, Ivory, and Gaffney very much, and I have enough of an Inner Egghead to enjoy thinking of myself as an intellectual, I never really questioned the underlying assumption.

But this time, Laurie’s comment brought me up short. Why? I’d been reading our staff poll results, and I no longer believed that “intellectual appeal” could be the whole story. Of those staff members I feel I know well, liking Kinsale, Ivory, or Gaffney isn’t necessarily linked to whether one might be considered “intellectual” or not. A good example of this is AAR Managing Editor Blythe Barnhill. Despite their reputations, Blythe has never tried Ivory or Gaffney, and doesn’t like Kinsale. From conversations with her, I know that Blythe does count Mary Jo Putney, Diana Gabaldon, and Suzanne Brockmann among her favorites. I’ve read all three authors too, and none of them specializes in Romance For Dummies. So leaving aside the question of who’s “intellectual” and who isn’t, are there other elements that contrast Kinsale, Ivory, and Gaffney with Putney, Gabaldon, and Brockmann?

(It would mess up my argument to point out that Blythe’s responsibilities leave her very little time to read books she isn’t reviewing, or else she might have tried Patricia Gaffney and Judith Ivory long ago. Also, that the one Laura Kinsale romance she’s read, The Prince Of Midnight, is the very last book I would recommend to someone trying Kinsale for the first time. So I won’t mention it.)

It happens that I like Mary Jo Putney and Suzanne Brockmann’s books very much, but I don’t love them the way that I love my favorites by Kinsale, Ivory, and Gaffney. I do love the Outlander series, but not quite enough to reread it. Since I’ve tried all six, I tried contrasting Kinsale, Ivory, and Gaffney as a group against Putney, Gabaldon, and Brockmann. All six are excellent writers, gifted storytellers. All are intelligent authors who never patronize their audience.

But the most notable quality I see that distinguishes the two groups is in their balance of “Introspection” vs. “Epic Sweep.” While both sets of authors have introspective moments as well as action and excitement, they tend to lean one way or the other. Although Claire in Outlander often ponders her relationship with Jamie, she spends even more time being buffeted about by events outside of their relationship – wars, torture, herbal remedies. In Kinsale’s Seize the Fire, Sherry and Olympia also get swept up by shipwrecks and revolutions, but Kinsale is more interested in how those events affect Sherry and Olympia’s characters than she is in recounting the action for its own sake.

However, from Maximum Introspection to Maximum Action is a continuum, not an issue of better or worse. The industrial-strength soul-searching that a number of Kinsale, Ivory and Gaffney’s characters indulge in which delights me, may be a total snooze-fest for someone else. It’s almost impossible for an author to include too much character introspection for me; I know that is not the case for many other readers.

One of the best examples of an “introspective” writer that I know – and, not coincidentally, one of my favorite romance authors – is Kathleen Gilles Seidel, who is the most precise author I’ve ever read when it comes to adding details that illuminate her characters. I don’t know another author who could have written this passage from Again:

“Alec was a middle child in a family of six. The first three children had been born one right after the other. Then there had been a gap of six years, after which had come three more closely spaced children. Alec had been the first of the second wave; he was the oldest of the ‘Littles.'”He had always felt responsible for his younger brother and sister; he was the one who spoke on behalf of all three of the ‘Littles.’ …. While he had had an oldest child’s sense of responsibility, he hadn’t had an an oldest’s self-assurance. Watching out for Ross and Meg didn’t keep him from comparing himself to Bruce, Gordon, and Jean. He couldn’t measure up to them because they were years older than he was, and he hadn’t liked that. As a kid, he had sworn that people would never patronize him, and they would never have to make any allowances for him.”

Very few authors in any genre, I think, focus on what makes their characters tick down to that level of detail, and I love it. But I can also see where details like this would be over-the-top and boring to many readers, especially when you consider that Seidel pulls this stuff out on every other page. “A child of an alcoholic, he had a lightning-quick sense of situations.” “She wore no accessories…not even a belt although her pants had belt loops in them. Clearly she was not one of life’s better dressers.”

Rachel Potter agrees that introspection is very important to her:

“I seem to have a real dislike for melodrama. I don’t like very much action. I don’t like car chases, kidnappings, sword fights, catastrophic gambling losses, rape and pillage. I seem to be attracted to books in which nothing much really happens. Or, if stuff happens, the confrontations that result are low-key and rather bloodless. Or, if all else fails and there’s rather a lot of action and a surplus of blood and guts, then the whole thing has to be darned unpredictable. I can’t stand predictability. I also can’t stand cardboardy, black-mustachioed villains. Hate those.”I think that my dislike for action explains why I don’t care for most of romantic suspense. It’s rather easy to see why I don’t care for Linda Howard; her books tend to be filled with action and characters who feel rather than obsess. It’s less easy to explain why I like Brockmann. With her I think it comes down to sense of humor. I enjoy her characters’ observations so much that I’ll put up with some violence and a plot-driven story. The same with Laurell K. Hamilton – you just never know what’s going to happen next with her, and I find this type of raw unpredictability intriguing.

“I think Susan Elizabeth Phillips is really great at writing the nothing-happens romance. I didn’t care that Heaven, Texas had no real plot. I just wanted to see Bobby Tom squirm some more. Jennifer Crusie’s books are a bit more plot-driven and structured, but what’s happening is still only an excuse to showcase her characters. Did anyone really read Welcome to Temptation for the murder mystery? I certainly didn’t. I read and loved it because Sophie, Phin, Amy, Wes and Davy were all so terribly fascinating to observe.

“Action emphasized over introspection may be the reason I can’t get into most traditional Regency Romances these days. They all seem like mini-historicals, not the character studies they used to be. The format just doesn’t allow enough space for all the action and development of character, and I think most traditional Regency authors choose the action option nowadays. I’ve been convincing myself that these books no longer work for me, but last weekend I read a couple of Sheila Simonsons that were written in the 1980’s and I liked them very much. So I think it’s more that I don’t like how they are being written now.”

Teresa Galloway prefers the other side of the coin: “Although characterization is extremely important and I must be able to identify with the characters in order to enjoy a book, I would say that almost of equal importance is that the plot must move. I can’t stand books where nothing seems to happen. That’s probably why I enjoy Brockmann and Howard so much….So introspection basically leaves me cold unless part of it will play an important part in the plot.”

Jennifer Schendel adds: “I’m not big on introspection and books where nothing much happens. I like page turners, books I can’t put down. My problem reading Gaffney was I could put the book down, walk away, clean house, come back to read a page, get bored again and go watch TV. I don’t mind introspection, but I want the characters to work with things outside themselves as well. I don’t want endless pages of pointless description. I don’t like books where characters spend more time obsessing over something that one good conversation with the hero/heroine or a secondary character would solve. “

Another quality that often distinguishes authors I love from authors I like is precisely crafted writing. Kinsale, Ivory and Gaffney all strike me as deeply concerned with finding the Exact. Right. Words. when they write, and that’s a quality that thrills me. In this case, I would put Diana Gabaldon in the same boat, while Putney and Brockmann (and Seidel) tend to write with a simpler, more direct style. In Drums of Autumn, Diana Gabaldon crafted a brief passage I find unforgettable. Jamie has thrown his back out and lies immobilized in the snow; Claire has built him a little temporary shelter. She asks how they’re going to get home, and he ignores her.

“It was a cold day, but a bright one, and the sun was jabbing brilliant fingers of light into our erstwhile sanctum, making little blobs of snow drop like falling sugarplums around us. I scooped up one of these and gently decanted it into the neck of his shirt.”

There is not a word out of place in that passage. Unusual word choice (erstwhile sanctum), original imagery (falling sugarplums), and a verb choice (gently decanted) that perfectly expresses Claire’s simultaneous affection and exasperation with Jaime. However, precise word choice doesn’t win over everyone. Kelly Parker remarks: “Writing style is the most puzzling part for me. The sentence from Drums of Autumn struck me as overwritten. I think a lot of writers who are supposed to be so “well-written” strike me that way, because if I want really beautifully written stuff, I tend to go to Shakespeare or F. Scott Fitzgerald, and if I’m reading romance I’m in the mood for something else.”

LLB agrees, although not entirely. While she always notices the words authors use, she harkens back to her peasant tastes when it comes to the final product. She says, “Whenever I read a book that’s not a “classic” and find that I’m expending too much effort to get out of it what the author wants me to get out of it, I tend to disengage. For me, reading romance is entertainment – I want to read it, understand it, and like it….Other than this, though, my biggest complaint with historical authors, although not the ‘trifecta authors,’ if you will, in fact, is a tendency toward melodrama and purple prose. Other people think these same books are dramatic and wonderful.”

Jennifer Schendel also thinks the rules are different for classics vs. romance novels:

“Since I adore Pride and Prejudice, I stopped to think and realized what I gripe about in a lot of contemporary authors (meaning writing today, not book setting) I never notice in the 19th century authors I love to read. If I’m picking up a book by Austen, one of the Brontes, Dickens or Hugo I put myself in a different mindset. I’m prepared for different use of the language and pacing and I know each author’s quirks. Hugo likes to wander off into pointless tangents that may or may not circle back to the book’s plot 15 pages later, and I expect that and just brush it off.”So why can’t I get myself in a different mind-set when I’m reading a modern author whose pace may be as slow and meandering as someone writing two hundred years ago? Part of it is the style and voice and the characters and the overall story, but I really wonder if it’s just different expectations on my part. When I read a contemporary writer I expect certain things of them and the main thing is I won’t have to put extra effort into enjoying the book. I want to be able to read it without having to work at it. So it’s really half my fault when I don’t enjoy a book that doesn’t move as fast as I’d like or hold my interest, because I’m putting in less effort.”

Along with humor, which is very important to me, I’ve decided what the two keys to my own appreciation of writing style can be summed up with “introspective” and “precisely crafted writing.” I asked other AAR staffers what qualities are most important to them.

LLB considered some of the qualities that characterize many (but not all) of her favorite romances:

“I like humor (and unless I’m beaten over the head with it, it usually works for me, whether it’s gentle humor, bathroom humor, or gross humor. I like crisp writing; it can be descriptive, but too much description and I tune out. Where darker romances are concerned, I like moral ambivalence, but I need to see some glimmer of humanity in a character – however small – to believe they’ll be redeemable.”In all cases, characterization is critical, but it’s got to be interwoven into the story at large so that it doesn’t detract from the narrative flow or turn into hand-wringing introspection or whining. Some authors tend to repeat themselves.”

Characterization is clearly the key, as Robin added:

“To me, good characterization is when the things in the story should happen primarily because of the kinds of people who populate the story. A marriage of convenience story may start the same in twenty books but it should play out differently because of who is in the marriage.”There are many romance books where the plot happens without too much influence from the hero and heroine, and that is a disaster. You can actually see a character compromise his or her actions to accommodate what is supposed to happen in the story. This happens a lot in the last 50 or 60 pages when the hero and heroine should logically be falling into one another’s arms and instead have a stupid fight and resist just to make the book longer.”

Rachel added her own thoughts on characterization:

“I think I like Ivory, Gaffney, and Kinsale because they all take chances in characterization. Each of them has at least one hero who is, in all reality, a bad person. Not a person with flaws or faux flaws or someone who’s misunderstood, or whatever. Actually a rotten person. Selfish, self-absorbed, slutty, irresponsible, willing to neglect or hurt others or to turn a back on a friend in need. Nardi in Bliss is a drug addict who wouldn’t know responsible if it walked up and slapped him across the face. Sebastian in To Have and to Hold is a complete rotter. Both Sherry from Seize the Fire and Christian from Flowers from the Storm are self-absorbed to the extreme. And Christian doesn’t even have a good reason – he’s just a spoiled prick. Anyway, somehow these authors manage to make me believe in the redemption of their awful, morally bankrupt heroes, and that is quite some feat!”

Marianne Stillings considered her favorite elements as they relate to three of her favorite writers: Connie Brockway, Linda Howard, and J.D. Robb:

“Brains. I like smart characters. They can’t be dumb or do dumb things or I’m simply out of there.”Humor. Humor in a story is very important, but not the plug-in kind. It has to evolve naturally, be a part of a character’s make-up or come out of a scene logically. Most humor in books either falls flat or seems forced. When an author does it right, the book goes way up in my estimation.

“Accurate research. Any author who is too lazy to check her facts loses me. It’s just not that hard to do it right and I feel that any author who makes stuff up, thinking her readers will either just let it go, or worse, not know enough to know she made it up, is insulting her research. Howard and Robb are especially good at research. When I read a ‘fact’ in their books, I believe it because I believe the author did her homework.

“Heartfelt emotion. Deep, intense emotion gets me. Only well-developed characterizations can create it, which means more work (or talent) from the author.

“Heroes I can love, heroines I can identify with. These three authors write very strong heroes, men with a capital M. The heroines must be able to go toe-to-toe with these Men, and the Men can’t whine or wimp out.

“Brockway, Howard, and Robb are all authors I continue to read based on trust. They’ve given me many great characters and stories in the past and have not broken trust with my expectations. They treat me, their audience, with respect, and it shows.”

Our discussion of the qualities that we like and don’t like is still ongoing, and I know we’ve only scratched the surface. There are a number of authors in our poll whose styles we haven’t even discussed, although I hope we’ll get to more of them in the next ATBF. I would love to hear from fans about the outstanding qualities that attract readers to some of the writers we haven’t discussed here.

Judging from the staff response to my first musings, I believe “introspection” versus “action” can be a key factor that distinguishes the romances we like from the romances we love – whichever quality you happen to favor. I know there must be many more such qualities, and I hope that our message board discussion will uncover more of them.



Time to Post to the Message Board

Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:

histbut One Foot on the Floor – Robin mentioned that several classic works of fiction leave it to the readers’ imagination and yet get the point across that people have been having sex…good sex. What’s more, this type of intimacy, though it may occur behind closed doors, has an impact beyond the bedroom. What are some of your favorite romances that do the same? Conversely, which romances do you wish had opened that bedroom door?

histbut Boring…Sex? – Robin provides detail from three books – two written in the 1960’s and one written in the 1990’s – that would seem to indicate their authors weren’t particularly impressed with sex. What do you make of this?

histbutLove, Lust, and Sex – The manner in which authors maintain sexual tension has changed throughout the past few decades. When the modern genre romance was young, many an author utilized a very strong love/hate relationship in order to maintain the tension. As the genre matured, though, authors began to be more subtle in maintaining sexual tension. Name some romances that feature strong sexual tension without relying on the love/hate relationship. How did their authors accomplish this? Can you name some failed efforts as well? Why did they fail?

histbut Robin’s Disappointment – In real life people may have happy marriages with bad sex, Robin doesn’t find this romantic. She doesn’t want to read about a hero who could happily be celibate. What about you? Are you disappointed in a romance where a husband and wife are having sex yet lack a sparkle in the eye?

histbutSexual Sparkle – How does sex change a relationship when people are in love? Is it different for men and women? Do you enjoy it when that is demonstrated in romance novels? How do you feel about a hero who doesn’t care about sex? How should a hero and heroine feel when they are married, having sex, but not sure they are in love. What books have you read that demonstrate this well? What books have you read where it has not worked.

histbutThe Usefulness of Comparing Author Styles – Most people enjoy having authors suggested to them based on their personal preferences, but how far can things be quantified? The “If You Like…” page revamp is definitely useful, but does it seem as though as readers we’re constantly creating various lists in order to make our choices easier and, more importantly, better?

histbutMary’s Line in the Sand – For Mary, and some of her AAR colleagues, many authors can be separated by their balance of “introspection” versus “epic sweep.” Do you find you agree with this and that it is a useful demarcation? Explain why or why not.

histbutWords, “Well-Written,” and the Final Product – Many bookies are just as attracted to prose as they are the final product. How important are the words, is the prose, to you? Do you tend to notice it only if it’s outstanding, or horrendous? How do you define the phrase “well-written?”

histbutConveying Character – Character can be conveyed through action, internal thought, and dialogue. Some of us adore internal introspection while others prefer dialogue or action in helping us define characters. What’s a good mix for you? Do you ever reach “hair-shirt” annoyance as does LLB?

histbutThese Authors Give Good Character – Which authors do you find deliver strong characterization on a consistent basis? Are there any authors who you find fail on this count?

histbutAAR Round-Robin – Were there any comments in particular that struck you when you read through the AAR Staff Round-Robin? Did you find yourself strongly agreeing or disagreeing with any of the discussion?



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