Treat Yourself to the AAR Bookbag!
June 1, 2003 – Issue #161
Welcome! This time around we bring you the conversion kit segment I promised last time – although the end result was somewhat different than originally planned. And, because our discussion lists and message boards have been so active recently, we’ve crossed over with Robin and Anne to synthesize and analyze two hot topics.[/fusion_text][/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][fusion_text]
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Conversion Kits… with All Due Respect to Anthony Burgess & Torquemada (LLB)
Before I started to read romance novels, the stereotype I held in my mind of romance readers – you should excuse the expression – were a “lumpy, dumpy, and frumpy” white-trash, blue-collar, trailer park kind of women. If I had to give you a mental picture, I’d say, “think Roseanne,” whose hilarious eponymous show still airs in reruns.
Yes, I admit it. I was a yuppie snob in those days, not the mother of an 11-year-old. My favorite store is no longer Neiman Marcus – these days it’s Target, and I no longer wear makeup just to pick up a quart of milk. So when I fell in love with romance novels, I discovered I had two faces. One was ashamed to admit reading romance while the other wanted to proselytize to the world.
I’ve managed to restrain myself from showing either face in full and am pleased to say I am no longer embarrassed to tell anyone what I love to read, nor do I go door to door and hand out romance novels as though they were religious brochures. And yet I do enjoy trying to convince friends and family to read romance if they’ve never done so, and I use myself as the perfect example.
I think the idea of a “conversion kit” is as scary to some people as it is an interesting concept to others. I say this because way back in May of 1997 when I first brought up the idea of romance novel conversion kits, a very vehement reader emailed me to share her annoyance with the entire idea. She felt that conversion kits eliminated personal preferences and that following through on the concept did “a great disservice by trying to force romance fiction down people’s throats.” She added, “Why not engage the strappado and the thumbscrews? It’s the same idea.”
While I disagree – my creating a romance novel conversion kit doesn’t exactly put me in Torquemada’s league – I’ve decided that it pays to know your audience. My conversion kit goal is to provide the general reader with excellent yet traditional types of romance so that a feel for the genre comes across, but in its best light. Instead of keeping second-hand copies of a few books as I used to do, I came up with roughly forty romance novels, works of historical fiction, and a couple of women’s fiction titles from which to pick and choose, depending upon the reader.
I don’t think this is a controversial stance, but even among us at AAR there is disagreement on whether a conversion kit can be effective, and further, how to assure its effectiveness. AAR reviewer Jennifer Schendel (aka Jen) and I engaged in this exchange following the previous ATBF issue:
Jen: I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t have a set of books that I’m going to fork over on some unsuspecting soul to convert them to romance. For starters, if someone doesn’t like romance, why force them to read it? Secondly, I’d never just take a non-romance reader and give them “traditional” romance, I’d probably ease them in with a non-traditional romance.
If they like funny books I’d hand over Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation or Evanovich’s One for the Money. If they like history I’d probably recommend Galbadon’s Outlander or Simons’ The Bronze Horseman. If they like mysteries Robb’s in Death series or Grant’s Daughter of the Game.
Note: all the books are found in the literary or mystery sections of the store, no step-backs or clinch covers to have a non-romance reader feeling embarrassed about their new reading material. If after talking to them and they liked the relationship/character aspect of the books then I might loan them something more genre romance. But really you have to talk to each reader, discover their individual tastes. Some people just aren’t romance readers and never will be. Other friends are more open to the genre and then I recommend books based on what they like to read.
LLB: I’m not talking about forcing someone to read a romance like they forced the criminals to watch violence in A Clockwork Orange. I’m talking about a friend you may have who hasn’t read romance before, but isn’t averse to trying.
I’ll admit that my original “kit” had only four or five titles and I did buy used copies of each. But my new pile of books from which to pick and choose is different; I only have one copy of many of them and would be extremely careful about lending them out.
Jen: I didn’t mean force in that sense either. But even a friend who was open to romance novels but had never read them before wouldn’t be getting traditional books out of me either. I almost always give a non-traditional book to friends first and then ease them into straight romances and series books. You want to break a reader’s pre-conceived notions about the genre, so you wouldn’t to give them anything that’d play into a cliche or stereotype. That’s easier with a non-traditional romance or mystery or fiction book with a strong central relationship at it’s core.
It’s how I’ve gotten most of my friends to read romance. Now days I can loan them a category romance or a historical with a clinch covers (or step-backs) without any worries that they’re going to read it with pre-conceived notions.
LLB: I kind of agree/kind of disagree. I’m more likely to lend somebody Velvet Bond, my favorite medieval, than I am a different medieval because, even though it’s not ground-breaking, it’s a great book. A king forces the hero and heroine to marry after a compromising position and the hero believes he was tricked into marriage. Fairly traditional in most ways – including the fact that everyone comes to like the heroine, so much so that he comes to believe she’s cheating on him w/his brother – and still excellent. It showcases what’s best about a romance novel because it’s traditional but it’s without the excesses that make some romances “scary” to newbies.
But I think it’s better to give great reads “that aren’t scary” and yet are traditional than to give a romance so unique that I don’t think it would really convince anyone.
And yet I agree with you to a certain extent; some of the books on my original list are no longer there. There’s my highest graded Elizabeth Lowell title. Even though it earned DIK status from me I would no longer include it in a conversion kit because it’s too purple and overwrought – even though I love it. Instead of that title, I’ve suggested another Lowell series romance that still shows her style, but in a slightly subdued manner.
No discussion of conversion kits seems possible without mention of the public disdain of romance. Indeed, it’s always surprising when I hear from a reader like Eliza, who apparently hangs out with a better class of people than those I’ve encountered throughout the years. She finds the discussion interesting, but is puzzled by it because the people she knows “just aren’t hung up on genre labels;” she’s never encountered someone who won’t read a romance.
There are lots of reasons people hold romance novels in disdain. I think it’s worth reviewing the arguments as Lori-Anne Cohen listed them in our May 1st ATBF issue before continuing this discussion:
- “I only read New York Times Bestsellers”
- “I only read real books”
- “Only frustrated housewives and spinsters read those… or write those”
- “I dont like Fabio”
- “You just read them for the sex”
- “People arent really like this, you know? We men cant live up to romance novel heroes!
- “No one reads romances”
- “All romances are the same”
- “Wouldn’t you be better off reading a classic?”
Two of the arguments from this list are of particular interest: “I only read real books,” and “Wouldn’t you be better off reading a classic?” This is the type of disdain Liz has encountered, although she encounters it less about romance novels specifically and more often about “literature versus entertainment.” She writes, “A lot of people will not admit that they read anything for fun and entertainment, especially if it’s published with a certain label, adding, “That can get pretty ridiculous too, as some romance novels get published as fiction at the German market… I know people who ‘would never touch that crap’ but were happy to read Susan Elizabeth Phillips (published in a kind of Chick-Lit format in German).”
One hears these arguments often; I find them both sexist and silly. I’m sure every one of us has a friend or relative who’s hooked on televised sports, who gets 5 channels of ESPN and watches television when he (it’s usually a man, sorry) could be doing something else. And yet, it’s far more likely that a woman will be asked why she doesn’t do something more productive with her time than read those books, which aren’t even real books, than it is that someone will ask Mr. Couch Potato why he doesn’t do something more productive with his time.
That takes care of the sexist… but what about the silly? Many of the books and plays that are considered classics today were originally considered low-brow. Shakespeare’s plays were often deemed vulgar and low-class, and it was thought that only frivolous people read novels at all. In our Jane Austen ATBF, Diane Farr argues that “when Jane Austen was writing, the novel was a new art form – which is why it was called novel. The form had not yet acquired the big male stamp on it that other, older, forms of literature had. The novel wasn’t considered a serious literary form yet.”
Even so, I think a larger argument may be “Who reads anymore?” At times it seems the world is made up of two different types of people – those who love to read, and those who don’t. Those who don’t I imagine are reminded of school when they see people reading and cannot imagine the joy derived from falling into a good book. How does one try to convince a non-reader how wonderful it is to read? Gail has several female friends she says simply don’t read, but wonders whether romance novels can be an “effective gateway to convert non-bookish friends” into people who read recreationally if those friends love romantic comedies, chick flicks, and TV shows like The Bachelor.
The advice Gail got from other readers was that it’s impossible to turn a non-reader into a reader, no matter the method. Lisa’s response was that whenever she’s tried to encourage a non-reader to read, she’s failed, “even if it’s something I’m sure they’ll enjoy.” Sentra wrote about people she works with who have read only one book in their lives that wasn’t a textbook – this “one” book was usually an English assignment. Given how difficult it is for long-time readers to read some of these oft-assigned books, it’s small wonder those who rarely read give up. As Mark wrote, “I’ve been known to say that I read for pleasure despite high school English, not because of it.”
Even so, readers like Queenie are baffled by non-readers. She cannot fathom how any curious individual who knows how to read chooses not to read but came up with these possibilities, some of which we’ve already listed:
- Reading is something you had to do for school; therefore its work and is not pleasurable. I suspect our educational system drums the joy of reading right out of some people and they never recover. I’m not sure what specifically turns people off, but I have more than once heard people say things like “I had to read in school, and I hated it. Now I never have to read again, so I don’t.”
- In order to enjoy the story in a book, you have to think and imagine. The author lays out the story, and your part is imagining it. Perhaps some people see this as work. Perhaps some people don’t have particularly good imaginations and don’t visualize well, so they don’t get the full enjoyment of a story.By comparison, movies and TV shows don’t require much imagination from the audience. In fact, thoughtful movies tend to be not as popular; people will deliberately avoid “good” or “art” movies and look for something that requires no thought on their part. (I can’t condemn movies as escapist, since I read for escape and watch movies for escape.)
- People are impatient. Perhaps they see the time it takes to read a book as taking too long. Watching a movie is a two hour commitment. Reading a book is a longer commitment, and it’s work. You can’t just sit there, you have to do something.
- I have also run across people who do read, but have had it drummed into them that reading should somehow be “worthwhile” and have some purpose related to education or self improvement. Reading purely for pleasure is somehow a “sin” against reading and a waste of time. They feel guilty reading something just for pleasure of it, with no particular “literary” or educational value. They do read, but think they have “get something” out of everything they read.
While it’s easy to become a bit snooty when comparing yourself to a lowly non-reader, it’s important to remember that people do process information differently. My daughter can tell me in minute detail exactly what happened in a book she read but when we watch television or go to the movies, she’s forever asking me what happened. Both she and I see things in words better than we see them in pictures and both of us love to read. My husband, on the other hand, sees things in pictures more easily than he does using words and isn’t nearly the reader we are. Though he’s an excellent writer, he often teaches or explains through pictures or diagrams and adores his Inspiration software as it allows him to translate his diagrams into outline form. He loaded the software on my computer well over a year ago – I’ve yet to use it.
Several comments, including Sarah’s, echo this theory. She wrote, “If people are not interested in reading and would rather watch TV or movies, I think they process things differently and need to visualize… actually see things. Reading bores them. I am not saying one is better than another, it is just a different way of seeing things and they do not like it. I have never been successful in converting a nonreader to reading, though I have tried a few times.” And Rosario’s experience is the same as Sarah’s. Rosario’s “given a couple of non-reading friends very carefully chosen books, perfectly tailored to their TV and movie tastes, and no luck. It’s not that they haven’t yet found a book they like, I think. They simply don’t like to read.”
Those of us who are passionate about books may find that their efforts to convert a non-reading have unintended consequences. For Laurie it’s an intensely personal experience, and when it backfires, it’s quite unpleasant. She wrote, “I have tried converting non-readers with a beloved DIK and found it so disappointing when they failed to see in them what I saw. Even more than disagreeing about a book with another reader.” She shared that when she’s tried to convert a non-reader with a favorite book, it’s never worked. Worse, she wrote, “I felt as if I had done wrong to my keeper, and my beloved heroes, as if I had carelessly given them over to someone who was not fit to like them as they deserve. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I can’t be logical with books I love. So, when I fail, I am a bit hurt, and I could resent him/her for doing wrong by my DIK, and myself for betraying it.” Laurie doesn’t plan on converting non-readers in the future, but if she changes her mind, she won’t use a book she really loves because it’s too personal.
While most posters found it impossible to convert a non-reader into a reader, Keishon was able to convert her sister, among others, whom she says “just wouldn’t pick up a book for nothing,” by recommending Janet Evanovich books. Her conclusion? “I think more folks are more willing to read comedic novels but for non-readers, as hard as it is to get them to read at all, I’d start them with someone like Janet Evanovich.”
We’ve come full circle, then, as Jen included an Evanovich title as one that might work in converting a non-romance reader into a romance reader. Kristie agrees. One of her sisters will read Nora Roberts and Susan Elizabeth Phillips while the other “refuses to read romance and constantly sneers” at her reading choice. But all three sisters read the Stephanie Plum books. What did other readers find successful?
We’ve asked the “conversion kit” questions on our ATBF Message Board for a month now, so there’s been ample time and space for readers to provide their lists and to comment on the lists others posted. Because there’s so much good material to share, I thought it best to create a snapshot in time of many of the posts made during this period, which is why I created an adjunct page of your comments, which is what we did when I originated the topic back in 1997.
Click here for that snapshot of posts, which begins with a list prepared by Rachel Potter, an AAR reviewer who also edits the Special Title Listings and the If You Like… pages, continues with comments and suggestions from other readers, and additional commentary/suggestions from still others. There’s a lot of great material there, so make sure to check it out, even if you need to bookmark it for later perusal.
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Hot Buttons, Personal Taste, and What’s Right to Write? (Robin Uncapher)
Last month a poster on the AAR Reviews Message Board began a discussion about Jo Beverleys 1992 book, An Unwilling Bride. This, to me, was no surprise. Ever since Andrea Pools B+ review of the 1992 reprint was posted back in January, Ive waited for somebody to talk about what happens in that book. Specifically the aristocratic hero, Lucien de Vaux, backhands the bluestocking heroine, Elizabeth Armitage. Thats right. He slaps her. Its a pretty shocking scene and the only thing really surprising about it is that Jo Beverley is not an author whom one expects to create this kind of hero. The story prepares you for the confrontation and contains lots of hints that the hero might strike the heroine, including descriptions of Luciens ongoing frustration that he cannot control a relative stranger whom his father chooses to be his bride.
The result of last month’s posting was a long and heated discussion about whether the novel contained abuse, whether abuse was condoned in the 19th century, and how far authors should go in writing this kind of book. At one end of the spectrum were those readers completely turned off by the abuse in the story, so much so that they did not enjoy the book and found it disturbing that others may have enjoyed it. Others liked the story in spite of the abuse, while still others liked the story without any caveats at all. And at the other end of the spectrum were those readers who believed that an author is entitled to write whatever sort of story they are inspired to write, whether or not individual readers approve.
The most unfortunate thing about the discussion was probably that conclusions were sometimes drawn about people who liked and did not like the book. So for the purpose of this discussion let me be clear. Liking An Unwilling Bride does not make anybody an apologist for abuse of women. Nor does it indicate in any way that the reader is naive about real life abuse. Similarly, hating the book because of the abuse does not make the reader someone who cannot enjoy the fantasy. We all have our hot buttons and liking or not liking a book is a matter of personal taste.
The question I would like to think about is not whether each of us personally liked An Unwilling Bride, but, what does this discussion mean in terms of the 21st century romance readers willingness to accept a wide range of heroes and heroines, including those with ambiguous morals?
Before I wrote this segment I sat down and reread the book because I didn’t think I could otherwise enter this discussion. For me it’s a pretty good book, a very good one in fact. When I first read it four years ago I was so surprised by the hero’s abuse that it distracted me from the character development that Beverley was trying to show. My memory of the book was that it was entertaining but that I probably would not read it again because the hero’s abuse was disturbing. This time around I was ready for the abuse and Luciens attempts to dominate Elizabeth. Though I was personally disturbed by his behavior on this reading, I also thought that it contributed to the drama in the story. In fact after Lucien strikes Elizabeth and reforms, some of the air seems to seep out of the story. Lucien reforms very quickly. Unfortunately many of the things he says sound like something from an abuse textbook of what not to listen to if a man hits you. (Im so sorry. This will never happen again.) The most convincing thing to me about Luciens reform is not that he gives up the abuse but that he stops trying to control Elizabeth. Nevertheless, if Elizabeth were my sister Id have told her to get out of the house the moment it happened.
But I was able to put away most of the concerns that would have plagued me were this a contemporary novel. Reading the book again, with four more years of romance reading under my belt, I found that the book was better than I remembered and the relationship between the hero and heroine is more complicated. Was the abuse necessary? I’m not sure that is the right question for enjoying the book. The real question should be: Did the abuse fit? The answer, to me, is probably it did and probably there should have been more of an explanation of what was going on in Lucien’s head – as well as the reactions of those around him. There should also have been a better explanation of Luciens reform. I would have liked to see one of Jo Beverleys other Rogues punch Lucien right in the nose and tell him in no uncertain terms that this was the last time this would happen. But that is me and I did not write the book. Its hard to believe that Jo Beverley would have written this book this way in 2003. That, to me, is both good and bad. The good is that women are more sophisticated about real abuse than they used to be and would be less willing to read the quick resolution of the problem. But the bad is that romance novels are becoming so alike, the rules are becoming so strict, that it is hard for an author to portray a hero or heroine as a real person with faults.
An Unwilling Bride is not an “issue” book. Its not about an abuser the way The Rake is about an alcoholic or The Burning Point is about modern day domestic abuse. In The Rake, Reggie, the alcoholic hero finds articles that lead him to understand the same things about alcoholism that a 21st century alcoholic would learn at Betty Ford. Readers enjoy the love story and get a little lesson on alcoholism. I suppose that Jo Beverley could have tried to do something similar with An Unwilling Bride but if she had it would have changed the story from a book about a struggle in a relationship to a book about a man with a mental problem. As it was it is not entirely clear how much of a problem Lucien has. Yes, he’s a bully by our standards. Society has changed so much, however that his reaction to things has different meaning to us in the 21st century than would have to those in the 19th century. This is not a way of rationalizing Lucien’s behavior. It is a way of explaining that Lucien is a unique person – not a symbol of abuse who is supposed to be turned into a teaching tool.
The question is, doesn’t genre fiction suffer when readers demand the kind of treatment that Reggie gets in The Rake in every book? Can genre fiction have flawed heroes and heroines? We are used to reading about deeply flawed people in literary fiction. Sometimes literary writers go so far overboard with this that the books are difficult to stomach. I haven’t been able to tolerate Phillip Roth since the 1970s. But when I read a post where someone cannot bear to read about Scarlett O’Hara because she is so selfish I am sad and scared of the intellectual narrowing that this can mean.
Laurie said something interesting in one of her posts. She said, “Every time I say I will never read a book with a certain theme or premise I find I have to change my mind.” I have come to a similar conclusion. If I say I will never read an adultery book then why do I think Anna Karenina was a masterpiece? If I won’t read a book with a bigot how come I love The Merchant of Venice? When I was first writing this I thought, I don’t want to read an adultery book by Julia Quinn. But when I wrote it down I realized that I was doing Julia Quinn a disservice. What if someone gave Julia Quinn the license to write an adultery book? Maybe she would pass it up, or maybe she would write something amazing. There is no way of telling and as a reader I lose a lot by second-guessing a talented authors writing before she’s written a word.
One depressing thing about this kind of subject is that way that disagreement can make you start to second-guess what you should say publicly about certain kinds of heroes and heroines. I might ask myself if someone hates Anna Karenina because it is an adultery book and posts about it – are people going to think she is a better person than I am? If I love Wuthering Heights will people think I want a guy like Heathcliff, who beat his first wife?
Of course many people who like both Anna Karenina and Wuthering Heights might oppose having flawed heroes and heroines in romance novels. Its a tough question because I personally have done as much criticizing as anyone. I wrote a scathing review of Merely Married because the hero married someone on her deathbed – for the most selfish of reasons. I think (deep down) that I really hated that hero because he was not believable, but what I wrote was that he wasn’t heroic.
Heroes and heroines with terrible flaws seem more palatable, to me, when I know that the author understands how reprehensible their behavior is and describes the people in detail. On this score An Unwilling Bride seems to pass the test. Lucien, the hero, is complicated. He’s a man who doesn’t really understand himself. Society has given him the impression that he must behave a certain way – that he must have obedience from those around him. At one point he asks a friend for advice on how to make his fiancé “behave.” He is confused when his friend does not understand the question.
Lucien is not my fantasy guy but, interestingly enough he is also not a Steve of Sweet Savage Love fame. He is not a comic book hero for women who fantasize about rape and being brutalized. And this, I suspect is what gets Jo Beverley into trouble with some readers. An Unwilling Bride isn’t a bodice ripper. Lucien is too real, too much what women who are abused want – i.e. a guy who can reform overnight. Some readers seem to fear that if women read about a man like Lucien they will stay with real abusers thinking that they might reform like Lucien.
Its an understandable, even laudable attitude on the face of it. Domestic abuse is a life-threatening problem. Why encourage books that might mislead readers? The answer is that the purpose of literature is not always to send a message. If we insist that every book sends a message we could miss some pretty amazing books. Lately I have noticed that there is a tendency in fiction, and not just romance, to develop characters based on what we know about abusers or what we know about alcoholics, drug addicts, rape victims, abused children whatever. Sometimes this is good. Anna Quinlins excellent novel Black and Blue, stars a smart interesting woman with a police officer husband who is a textbook case abuser. Not only does Fran Benedetto, the heroine handle her abuse valiantly (by running away) her abusive husband fits most of what is known about most abusers.
I loved Black and Blue because its a great, if terribly sad, story. The book (an Oprah pick) did an immense amount to educate women about domestic abuse and the mistakes they might make in believing their abusers will reform. But does every book have to follow what we know about a person with a certain kind of problem?
People are notoriously complicated and in literature, the better the book, the more multifaceted the characters. A great book can be written using what we know about abusers. But a great book can also be written about an individual who doesnt fit the expert profile, assuming that the author can do a good job of letting you know that she sees the flaws in the character and that they are not simply mistakes in the writing. Artists, and that includes writers, have got to be given latitude in portraying human faults. Gone With the Wind would not be a masterpiece of Scarlett had been like Melanie or if Margaret Mitchell had left slavery out of the book.
Is the message of An Unwilling Bride that an abuser can reform? I don’t think so. I think that the book is a portrait of a difficult relationship between a man who is allowed to privately bully everyone around him and a real bluestocking who takes Mary Wollstonecraft seriously. It’s about the push and pull and its about how they make peace. If a reader doesn’t like An Unwilling Bride that’s okay. But it troubles me that some readers might try to save me from this book.
Everybody has hot buttons; few books about thieves end up in my shopping cart. Many readers feel the same way about prostitutes. But there is a great leap between not buying Mary Balogh’s No Man’s Mistress and suggesting that nobody else should read it either.
And even though I don’t generally read books about thieves this controversy has made me remember that I should occasionally try to read one anyway. Im not saying that anybody else should be running out to do that, just me.
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Virgin Sex (Anne Marble)
Bring up any topic involving sex on AARList, and the joint gets jumping. Throw in discussions of virginal sex, and the place becomes a beehive of activity. Such was this latest instance when reader Carolyn posted the following:
“Something that bugged me and does bug me about many romances is the idea that the heroine can get her jollies from sex so immediately. Especially when it involves a virgin. I mean – realistically – isn’t it a little more difficult for women to have an orgasm than what we’re told in romances? How do these women, especially the virginal ones achieve their climax so darn quickly and with so much ease? Do you buy it? Achieving orgasm through intercourse is not easy for many women. We know millions of women may not ever achieve it or struggle with it. Intercourse can take work to make it enjoyable. It helps to have a very patient and unselfish partner. And I realize some women achieve sexual fulfillment easily, but many others just don’t.”
This reminds me of some of the first romances I read! I don’t recall the title or author, but one of the first was a historical romance about a heroine who lost her virginity to the masked hero during a ball. She was so naive she asked the hero “Can I do this?” before moving her hips. I believe his answer was along the lines of “Oh, God, yes. Yes! Yes! Yes!” She was so naive and yet so oversexed at the same time that the combination read like a parody.
Ashleigh agrees that the portrayal generally isn’t realistic, but she also believes that might be part of its attraction to readers. She wrote, “I think it may be because so many women have a miserable first time that the vastly-experienced-lover hero is so popular. Women would like to think that with a man so skilled and thoughtful that they could have had wiz-bang-boom the very first time. Realistic? I don’t know, but definitely a good fantasy.” That said, however, she doesn’t always buy into the “it was great the first time” love scenes; if there’s going to be fantasy, she wants a touch of realism. She wants the hero to work for it, which is something many historical heroes are doing these days. One wonders, though – how real is that?
To me, the classic case of the hero and heroine who have to work a little harder is that of Ranulf and Reina in Johanna Lindsey’s Defy Not The Heart. Ranulf is a big hero – in more ways than one. Reina is tiny. The first few times they make love, he doesn’t get it right at all. Ranulf doesn’t know what to do when presented with a woman who doesn’t fling herself at him, ready for action. It’s only after he asks the village prostitute for help and learns how to pleasure a woman that he is able to make love to his wife properly. And the fact that asked for help (when he probably wanted to run away screaming rather than talk about it with a woman) makes him all the more adorable.
AAR’s Donna will buy into virgins having orgasms or lusty heroes who can go all night if the author portrays it skillfully. She shared that in Lisa G. Brown’s Billy Bob Walker Got Married, the virginal heroine did have a first-time orgasm, but the hero tried very hard not to cause her pain, and didn’t always succeed, which made the scene very real. She added: “I will find fault with a romance if it is always predictable and doesn’t show me something a little different, or shows something that is so far from reality that it yanks me out of the story. I’ve read romances for so many years and have pretty much seen it all – there are only so many ways tab A can fit into slot B. To me, there is getting to be too much emphasis, in a lot of the books now being published, on the physical aspects of the act (which might have been refreshing to me in the beginning but can grow stale with endless repetition) to the detriment of the emotional ones. And I also think that some guy can be the most skilled lover in the world but fail to wow me if I don’t have some kind of emotional investment – whether it’s love or just those initial fluttery feelings of anticipation, of ‘this guy makes me feel things I don’t usually feel’ (and not just physical sensations).”
Like Donna, I think the author’s skill plays into this a lot. A few years ago, I read a book called Roses at Midnight by Alexa Smart, a historical romantic suspense novel. This one had a virginal heroine who really really wanted to learn. Amaryllis was one of the early feminists, and she was eager to embrace the concept of “free love.” She even borrowed an illustrated book about sexual positions from the hero’s library, without letting him know. This could have, should have, been interesting, a real switch from quivering virginal heroines. Yet I never bought into their first sex scene. Part of it was because, firmly held beliefs or not, I couldn’t believe that she would have sex with the hero without worrying about “little things” like pregnancy. (A pregnancy could throw a huge cog in the wheel of that independent life she wanted to lead.) But the major reason the scene didn’t work for me was because it teetered over the believability factor. I could understand her eagerness, but I couldn’t buy into it when she started suggesting an uncomfortable sexual position she’d read about in the hero’s book. No matter how eager she was, wouldn’t she at least worry about splinters? On the other hand, some people probably loved this scene because she was so different from the usual Regency-era heroine who gasps and asks “What’s that?” or the classic “Can I do this?”
The Big BJ Scene (or) You Want me to What?!
Julene is bothered by heroines who do too much their first time. Especially if that encounter involves giving the man oral sex.
“What about virgins who give the hero a blow-job the very first time she ever has sex? This might seems more realistic in a contemporary where women know more about sex, but it doesn’t come across as very believable for a sheltered, innocent heroine in a Regency-set historical romance. I have come across this more than once, too, but just recently in Lord Ruin by Carolyn Jewel (liked the book but traded it – it had too many problems to be a keeper). The sexual encounter happened quite early the book. The heroine had even been dosed up with laudanum after spraining her ankle. So the fact that she had the skill, confidence, forwardness and ability (she’s drugged!) to accomplish this was a bit much.”
The rest of Julene’s post involved a spoiler, but let’s just say that the heroine had a very close encounter with a part of the hero’s anatomy. And yes, she even swallowed. Heck, from the way Julene described this scene, I’m surprised this heroine didn’t sprinkle some cinnamon while she was down there… Yet although the heroine was an innocent from the Regency era, she wasn’t frightened away or anything like that. In fact, she even wanted more! Julene couldn’t see it happening, although it’s worth noting that while Jennifer Keirans, in her AAR Review of this book, wrote that while it was “ridiculously improbable,” she found herself “swept away by its sensuality.” She too liked the book overall; her grade was a B-.
This is the sort of scene that was ripped apart in an earlier ATBF column about the “Big Gulp.” In that column, many readers admitted that they had a hard time accepting swallowing scenes, especially those involving unworldly virgins. Some saw it as a fantasy out of male porn – definitely not something a virgin would even know about on the first time. Sure, it can be an intimate and erotic part of the act, but… can we have some plausibility, please?
Quinn also agrees that virginal heroines who swallow stretches her willing suspension of disbelief. She posted, “As for a virgin in an historical happily heading south and swallowing, I don’t buy it. Maybe after she’s had some experience, it would make sense, but not before. I’ll accept multiple orgasms before I accept that.” The “Big BJ scene” feels false to Ashleigh, too, but for a different reason. She feels many authors don’t write a “convincing build-up to the big BJ,” adding that “one kiss and then zip/button, you’re there.” While she sees oral sex as the natural precursor to vaginal sex – particularly if the couple hasn’t made the decision to go all the way yet can’t keep their hands off one another, this isn’t the scenario usually presented in a romance.
Sandy believes that inexperienced women in historical settings would probably not know it existed, much less initiating it, adding, “Let’s be honest, the first time we heard of the practice or were encouraged to participate it was ‘You want me to put what in my mouth and do what?'”
Some Experience Necessary
“Do most of you feel that the hero must be more experienced then the heroine? Is this why, in all his manly acrobatics of love, he can use his arousal in ways that will climax his heroine multiple times, in ways that we mere mortal men, fumbling around on the couch, never can? Is that what this is all about? Is the sex that miserable in real life that ‘ideal’ sex is a man who uses Mr. Happy like Monet used his brush? Out with it: is the fantasy a sex machine? Because I’m confused. I thought that the fantasy was about ‘feelings.’ Or is it both: is the appeal of a hot romance that you get expert sex and feelings, something that is impossible in real life, unless you are married to one man and screwing another? (Ahem. A joke.)”
— Thom, who reads romances, but not hot ones
So… Do we want our heroes to be experienced? As with anything, that gets lots of different answers. Many of which hinge on “It depends…” It depends on the skill of the author; the reader’s likes and dislikes; whether or not the hero comes across as simply experienced or yet another Duke of Slut; the mood of the reader; and for that matter, the number of sunspots that day.
Ashleigh believes that sometimes, heroes can be too experienced, writing that “a goodly number of authors don’t sell me with ‘you’re the 500th woman I’ve had this month but you’re more special than all of them.’ She feels that sometimes it’s “battered in with a sledge hammer” while in other instances it’s simply not addressed at all. She finds it mostly feels false because “experienced heroes often feel jaded, not jaded with a heart of gold, or jaded that can only be touched by heroine, but just plain jaded and self-centered and yet conveniently skilled.”
Jo Beverley likes to blend realism and fantasy in her own love stories. For her the appeal of an experienced hero is that “he in theory can make it wonderful for the heroine first time, plus a guy with a lusty sex life isn’t going to be desperate to get his jollies, and can be very patient,” adding, “Nearly all my heroes are that type. Romance is an interesting blend of reality and fantasy, and that’s why I like it.” While most of her heroes are that type, two are on our Virginal Heroes list.
On the other hand, Kay prefers “a hero and heroine who learn about sex, and the wonderful intimacy it can bring, together. Of course, in real life, I’m also one who believes that it is just as important for a man to be a virgin when they come to the marriage bed, as it is for a woman.”
Donna likes an experienced hero, but she prefers experienced heroes who can’t control their desires around the heroine, which may explain the appeal for many readers of Catherine Coulter’s The Sherbrooke Bride. The romance that best typifies the sexually experienced hero in total control, except with the heroine, is Esmond from Loretta Chase’s Captives of the Night. Donna recalls that Esmond “was experienced and could control his desires, had a rule he never got involved with someone in an investigation, but these were rules he just couldn’t follow with the heroine. As Chase wrote: ‘Effortlessly, without intention or guile, she’d shattered his resistance. All that mattered to him now was wearing down hers.'” Donna added that one of her favorite romances, My Dearest Enemy, featured a hero who wasn’t very experienced. And yet, she writes, “When they met in the bedroom, it simply did not matter, because the emotional and physical attraction was so great between them that expressing that with each other couldn’t help but be perfect.”
The fantasy of the hero who prides himself on control but cannot manage it until he meets that special woman is certainly powerful, which might be one reason experienced heroes are so popular. It’s not just that they’re experienced – it’s that they’re experienced and yet they still turn into puppy dogs when confronted with The Woman.
Carolyn counts herself in the camp of readers that doesn’t require the hero to be experienced.
“There aren’t enough of them but I enjoy a story where the couple must learn together. I too become disappointed with the hero when he’s ultra experienced and left many in his wake. Not much of a hero in my book. I don’t buy the idea that he’s had meaningless sex with hundreds but with the heroine suddenly it’s ‘the real thing.'”
On the other hand, Robin Schone prefers experienced heroes.
“I think the problem is that most real men aren’t really that experienced. While a popular romance theory is that love alone is what causes orgasms in women, well … Give me the guy with experience. Ideally, as Jo says, he’ll be able to see past his own needs and utilize his expertise to make sure it is wonderful for the heroine. It was a challenge for me in my next novel, because the hero has very little experience in pleasing a lady, so he must learn along with the heroine on how to make sex an exciting and fulfilling part of intimacy.”
But which heroes count as experienced heroes? Is it the Duke of Slut? Or is it the hero who has been in one or more long-term relationships? Ranulf definitely counted as an experienced hero, yet in his first scenes with Reina, he flunked out as a lover.
Michelle Hauf brings up echoes of Ranulf by stating what seems obvious: A man can only really know how to please a woman if he has been taught by a woman. Further, she poses the question, “Who knows our bodies better than ourselves? If we want men to do things right then shouldn’t we be responsible for that?” Hauf mentions that in the story she just finished, the heroine does “show the hero just exactly what it takes to make her hum.” And yet, she acknowledges the fantasy aspect of romance, writing, “It does surprise me in romances when a hero who has not had a lot of experience can ‘master’ a woman so easily. On the other hand, if the hero can’t please a woman than he’s a dud. But I really am eager to see more ‘realistic’ portrayals of sex, sometimes showing that indeed, the woman can be more skilled/knowledgeable without being a slut.”
(A different) Donna agrees with this point of view. One of her pet peeves when reading historical romance, particularly those set in the Regency, is the hero whose experience is derived from women he pays for sex. While her favorite romance is Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, she’s noticed since her first reading of the book that “a man who got most or all of his action with prostitutes probably wouldn’t know squat about pleasing a woman, so it seemed pretty implausible that he’d be this great, patient, skilled lover who knew exactly how to please his new wife (and bring her to orgasm the very first time). I’ve had this reaction to other books, but titles escape me.”
LLB agrees that many historicals feature heroes whose sexual experience is derived from sex-for-money set-ups, either with mistresses or prostitutes. “Unless it’s a given that he’s also either cheating with married women or sleeping with widows, in which case it’s a sex-for-pleasure set-up, he may have been told he’s the best lover in the world, but I won’t believe it.”
So what do readers want? Do we want virginal heroines who dive “down there” even though it’s the first time they see a man naked? Would we prefer sex scenes where it’s not right the first time? (Ranulf strikes again!) Or maybe we just want… All of the above, depending on what the writer can make us believe. Variety, realism, fantasy, great writing, and even more variety. Are we picky or what?
Time to Post to the Message Board
(After you’ve visited our Conversion Kit Snapshot page), here are the questions we’d like to have you consider:
Is it tougher for a woman to have “down time?” Does it seem as though we have to justify the time we take to read while men can watch TV, play sports, or putter in the garage without needing similar justification? Do you have any stock answers to the questions: “When do you have time to read all these books?” “Why do you waste your time reading that stuff instead of ____?” (you fill in the blank) Along these lines, what are the most insulting comments you’ve gotten simply because you love to read?
Jen believes it’s easier to convert a friend to romance if you start with non-traditional romance and “ease them” into the genre while LLB believes the opposite. She prefers excellent yet traditional romances so the reader gets a true flavor of the genre without the excesses. The other is too “bait and switch” for her. What do you think?
Of the list Rachel prepared (located on that adjunct page, which titles would make a convert out of you? Name the one romance everyone you know loves and would consider a good “conversion book” that you think would be horrible to recommend – either because you don’t care for it or for some other reason (be sure to explain).
Are you an “anything goes” kind of reader? In other words, are you willing to read a book with just about any theme, premise, or story-line? Were you always this type of reader, or did something or some book change your mind?
Are there certain things you don’t want to read about, like infidelity, injuring animals, abuse of women, abuse of children, etc? Are any themes, premises, or story-line guaranteed to turn you off or have you read any book or can conceive or reading any book that changed your mind? If there are degrees between being an “anything goes” kind of reader and a “never in a million years” reader… where do you stand, and why?
Most of us accept that writers should follow their muse and that readers vote with their wallets. Does this laissez faire stance work for you, or are there some limits that modern society should place upon itself so that if an action or type of behavior is written about in a novel, nobody would find the book in its entirety entertaining?
Is there a boundary line that divides a believable deflowering scene and one that snaps your willing suspension of disbelief, and what makes that difference? Can you accept over-the-top behavior from virgins if the writer is that good?
Okay, spill the beans. Are there any scenes that made you roll your eyes in disbelief, and if so, why? Conversely, what are the romances with such scenes that you bought into despite the disbelief factor?
Can you think of romances where both the hero and the heroine were inexperienced, and did you like how the writer dealt with those issues? Do you prefer experienced heroes or inexperienced heroes, and if you prefer the latter, what’s the appeal for you? What are the traits that make you prefer that either type of hero?