At the Back Fence Issue #202

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

June 15, 2005

In this issue of At the Back Fence I’ll be discussing a recent firestorm within RWA that is still raining ash in its wake. While it may seem strange that a column for readers would focus on an action in a writer’s organization, I wrote the piece with our readership in mind and attempted to broaden the discussion so that it is accessible and meaningful for our audience. After my segment, Anne discusses Addiction & Recovery in Romance.

The Romance Umbrella (Laurie Likes Books)

Over the past week and a half, a firestorm has been spewing ash within RWA’s membership over an action taken by its board of directors without input from the general membership. Why should a romance novel website devoted to readers care about trouble in a writer’s organization? Particularly since it grew out of standards RWA set in place as regards advertisements in their members-only magazine? Well, let me try and put this all into perspective…

Earlier this month I began receiving emails from authors about new guidelines at RWA that were “tantamount to censorship.” The pertinent paragraph as regards “Graphical Standards”, covering “all RWA programs and services,” was this: “the following shall not be depicted or represented: exposed male and female genitalia, exposed female nipples, cunnilingus and fellatio, hands or mouth covering naked female breasts, naked or g-string-clad buttocks, and bestiality. The following words: c*ck, c*cksucker, c*nt, f*ck, motherf*cker, sh*t, and t*t, will not be displayed.”

As I am not a member of RWA, I’ve not seen the actual “members only” text, but the rationale for RWA’s enacting these guidelines purportedly is to protect its non-profit status as regards obscenity laws, particularly in the light of federal attempts to enact shield laws. Many an RWA member interpreted these guidelines to mean that should they depict, represent, or display any of the above on their websites, RWA would no longer link to them, and this includes not only the national organization, but local and/or special interest chapters. Okay…so I read this and I thought it was perfectly reasonable…at AAR whenever we use “naughty words,” we either asterisk them or replace a letter with an underline, as they do in newspapers and magazines. For that matter, magazines catering to the sexually adventuresome and/or fetish crowd don’t feature sex acts and/or exposed genitalia on their covers. And given that those “you must be over 18 to enter this site” statements are ridiculous and prevent no one from going anywhere online, what’s wrong with this stance?

But RWA’s policy seemed to go further, at least in the interpretation of a great many authors. They determined that the board’s official stance meant that if a dues-paying member so much as links to another website containing any of the above, her link privileges from RWA would be lost. Which means that an RWA member writing books published by both the mainstream and Ellora’s Cave – which is a RWA-recognized publisher – could no longer link to Ellora’s Cave from her own website because EC book covers, while not explicit, sometimes things leave open to interpretation, and in the excerpts of the books they sell, sometimes “naughty” words are used.

After reading the board’s official statement myself, I could see why these authors drew that conclusion: “Those same graphical standards that we had arrived at for our magazine needed to be extended to everything to do with the official face of RWA–the face we want to present to the public, to the publishers, to our readers–under the RWA service mark. That meant that we didn’t want posters of those same graphic covers to be used at literacy signings, and that any web site that was officially associated with RWA needed to respect those same standards. We feel today quite strongly that this is the right direction to be going in.” (emphasis added)

After furor from many of its members, and not only Romantica authors were vocal in their unhappiness at something they found to be censorship from an organization devoted to promoting free speech, RWA backed off its Graphical Standards ruling and put together an ad hoc committee to study the subject and report to the board in September. Apparently the leadership is not only concerned about violating obscenity laws – they also worry about what might happen should a Romantica author at the annual Literacy Booksigning (that accompanies their national conference) set up next to an author for whom explicit language and /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages might create discomfort, as well as how to handle those under eighteen who might attend the signing. (That last seems odd considering I’ve never noticed anyone at Borders or Barnes and Noble policing the Romance aisles now that Ellora’s Cave books are stacked along with mainstream Romances.)

As an aside, author Ann Jacobs alleges that she was informed by RWA that she could not sign her EC release, A Mutual Favor, at RWA’s booth during the recent Book Expo America because it violated the Graphical Standards guidelines (had the guidelines not been tabled until September, presumably she would also have been unable to sign her book at RWA’s Literacy Booksigning this summer. You’ll find the offending cover below, next to two others. Compare Jacobs’ cover to the cover from Linda Howard’s 2004 Ballantine release, Kiss Me While I Sleep, which could have been signed at RWA’s Literacy Booksigning last year had she attended, and then against a third cover, of fully clothed subjects for a series romance that “won” 3rd place in the Worst Cover category in our 2002 Cover Contest (those who chose this final cover as “worst” for 2002 did so because it looks as though the hero is, shall we say, being manually manipulated by the heroine). Which of these three covers, if any, do you find offensive? And if all bother you, is Jacobs’ cover the most egregious?

annjacobs killtime WO-02c

While Jacobs alleges that the reason she could not sign her book at RWA’s booth during the BEA grew out of Graphical Standards, according to a source within RWA, the book was not given permission to be signed because RWA’s executive director – not an author, btw – had seen and/or read the book previously and determined it was not a Romance. I’m not sure which story, if either is completely true, is more telling…what about you?

So far I’ve not said anything of real interest to romance readers, but I’m about to. We all know that the modern genre Romance had as one of its main roots on the Romance family tree the bodice ripper, the type of romance nearly every reader and author is at pains to tell non-readers no longer exists. We also know that a major reason for the bodice ripper’s existence is that it allowed women to read about sex at a time when the sexual revolution hadn’t quite trickled down to the masses. Again (and isn’t it always?), I think this is about sex, plain and simple, and how uncomfortable a segment of writers are with having their work associated with far more explicitly sexual writing.

Earlier this year I read that some RWA members who judge in RWA-sponsored writing competitions have refused/are refusing to judge books containing erotic content. I can see where a writer of “kisses-only” Romance might not feel comfortable or even competent to judge a Romantica novel (but it’s a slippery slope – what if RWA members who feel uncomfortable with sexually experienced heroines, or heroes who’ve been unfaithful, didn’t want to judge a book featuring such characters?). I mentioned the Romantica judging issue to author Michele Albert, who said that there were similar incidents involving Inspirational Romances some years ago. She recalled:

“It’s been a while, but as I remember it there were noises of people not wanting to read or judge books that would preach Jesus at them. There were members who said it shouldn’t make a difference; that good writing, plotting, and characterization should be what was judged, nothing else. Then there were arguments over what ‘inspirational’ meant, since these books were plainly Christian romances about characters with Christian values. The term ‘inspirational’ seemed rather too broad to refer only to Christian values. In the long run, inspirational romance got its own category. Erotic romance, by the same logic, should get its own category as well. At least that way they get a fair read by judges who aren’t biased against them. Nobody should be forced to read something they’re not comfortable reading just as nobody should be discriminated against for writing a book that a segment of the membership doesn’t like because of a personal bias.”

Romantica has become more erotic as it’s developed over the past several years. Today’s Romantica, even from Harlequin, is a far cry from the first Blaze titles released. As the Internet and associated technologies have advanced, e-book publishers have begun to influence the print world, not only in the authors who have crossed over, but with the level of explicitness in sexuality. We all know that for many years now, there’s been a great deal of tension in RWA between e-book authors and print-published authors. That’s beginning to change too, particularly as you can now walk into any large bookstore and see print versions of Ellora’s Cave Romantica shelved in the Romance section. Although there have been drastic improvements in the quality of e-books available, I personally believe e-publishers must do even more in order to compete with traditional print publishers in terms of quality, and until more time has passed and more improvements in the buying and editing of e-books for publishing are made, e-book authors will continue to have second-class status within a genre that has second-class stamped all over it.

But you can see real evidence of the increasing acceptance of e-publishing. Not only have e-book authors moved into the mainstream, we are now seeing more and more print authors crossing over to do e-books as well, either as one-time collaborations, or as a matter of course. According to the founder of Ellora’s Cave, Romantica author Jaid Black (published both by EC and Pocket), “E-books are a…legitimate publishing tool…even the NY publishers recognize this fact. Dorchester recently signed a contract with Ellora’s Cave because they want EC to create and distribute the e-book formats of their print books. Additionally, another similar deal is currently in the works with one of the world’s two biggest publishing houses…I’m not at liberty to divulge their name as of yet because the contract hasn’t been signed.”

The growing Romantica sub-genre is here to stay, but because, for the most part, Romantica e-books and primarily print-published e-books vary greatly in terms of what’s sexually acceptable, precisely what constitutes a “romance” is becoming more fluid and, I imagine, more troubling for a segment of RWA’s members. I’ve concluded that for me, Romantica limits the number of individuals in a bed to two – meaning that there are no threesomes, nor are there sexual activities involving one party that doesn’t involve, and only involve, the other. Books and stories that have a happy ending between a twosome but with other people in the bed (concurrently or at different times, but still during the relationship), are what I’d call Erotica with an HEA. Both have their place, and I’m happy to say that I’ve read books in both arenas that I’ve found surprisingly romantic, but for me, that’s the line in the sand.

Do I draw lines for me, or for everyone? I can speak only for myself. My honest feeling is that while some of the books I’ve read are labeled as Romantica, for others the label is more a marketing device to make it more palatable for women who might otherwise be afraid or embarrassed to read Erotica. I’ve no problem, for instance, picking up an Ellora’s Cave print novel in the Romance section at my local bookstore, but going back to the Erotica section is something I feel uncomfortable doing.

Where each of us draws that line in the sand may differ, but my line shouldn’t be forced upon you, and vice versa. It’s my theory that some Romantica is mislabeled, but really, who am I to say? Who am I to judge what Romance is to you? Those are the questions I think are pertinent to discovering what is at the essence of what has transpired among RWA’s members. RWA is an incredibly diverse organization of some 9,000 members, grappling with a multitude of viewpoints. And when you add together disputes over legitimacy and sex, there’s bound to be trouble. After all, RWA in 2004 awarded a RITA for Best Novel with Strong Romantic Elements. And, as Michele Albert reminded me, “RWA has taken Chick Lit under its umbrella…Chick Lit often has a heroine who sleeps with more than one guy, may or may not have the heroine get a guy in the end, and the romantic element isn’t the focus of the story.”

When put that way, it makes perfect sense that all of Romantica belongs under the Romance umbrella. Forget my line in the sand. Jaid Black writes in Lady Jaided magazine that Ellora’s Cave books “found instant success” because they “provided something that women wanted, but couldn’t find elsewhere in their reading at the time. Sex. Lots of it. We wrote the way they craved it, their carnal fantasies in mind, a happily-ever-after with a hunky hero and a cherry on top ending. It was erotic and it was romance. It was erotic romance.” How simple is that?

Romance authors already must fight against the idea that they are writing trash, bodice rippers, porn for women, and surely not “real” books. When RWA officially informed its members why they enacted the Graphic Standards, they wrote: “We have spent years and money and enormous effort turning around the public’s attitude toward our genre. Our books were called ‘bodice rippers,’ we had no respect, we were the stepchild of the industry. In the past few years, we have come to represent the voice of our writers; publishers respect us and have heeded some of our requests for better deals for our writers; scholars treat what we write as serious enough for study; even other genre groups come to us for advice on how we do such an effective job. We have come so far.”

But if RWA sees its mission as protecting romance, some romance writers who have ridden the new wave of erotic romances are concerned that the organization is not protecting their interests. Author Alison Kent argues that RWA seems to be “totally ignoring the current state of the market. The organization has put out the word for years that romances are not all about sex, yet the surge in erotic imprints (whether erotica or erotic romance) from all the major publishing houses is threatening to derail that stand…I believe it is about a moral objection to explicit content by many of the organizations members, and a wish to be distanced from that. I have read quotes by multi-published and even RITA winning romance authors that say erotic romance is degrading the genre. Period.”

RWA has worked for years to change how Romance is viewed by the mainstream, and to protect the marketing effort for writers of what we call Romance, where the focus is on the feelings between two people that results in a lasting bond, although it could also be argued that it’s not RWA that has affected public opinion, but member authors such as Nora Roberts, Linda Howard, and Jennifer Crusie. Even recognizing their tireless efforts on behalf of RWA, could it be that their books do more to affect public opinion on Romance than RWA?

It seems that the larger question is this: How far can you push the envelope before it tears? Do you create a larger envelope – or do you suggest that perhaps a second envelope is needed?

Then there’s an influx of new writers, published non-traditionally, who, because they didn’t sign with a print publisher, are even less “real” authors, and what’s worse, they are writing books that are far more easily considered porn for women. Which may explain why Black alleges that a letter published in RWR in April from a member author who wrote that erotic romances should not be a part of RWA, or recognized by it, (“I think we made a big mistake in lowering our standards to accept such a publisher.”), led RWA in May to require that EC go through – for a second time – its publisher recognition steps. (Publisher recognition is important as it lets RWA members know the publisher is considered legitimate, and involves the review of contracts, author agents vouching for the publisher, and proof of publisher sales.) Though RWA stated other reasons for requiring this re-recognition, Black and EC’s COO Crissy Brashear believe the timing is suspect.

All of us have heard that while existing Romance readers continue to buy and read Romance, the publishers haven’t been able to capture younger readers. Which perhaps explains Zebra’s recent decision to eliminate its Regency Romance program later this year, leaving only Signet publishing traditional Regencies. It surely explains, at least in part, Harlequin’s expansion into women-featured action/adventure series titles as well as the its upcoming Romantica imprint, in addition to its expansion of the Blaze line, because in general, those born after the sexual revolution have a more relaxed attitude about sex. Michele Albert suggests that, in addition to a more relaxed attitude towards sex, “the younger generation was raised on computers and probably doesn’t have the bias against ebooks the way an older reader might…things like this are bound to cause a generational gap that some will have a harder time dealing with.” But neither Albert, who hasn’t belonged to RWA for some time, nor Kent, who resigned just yesterday, are sure of the e-book connection – Kent has heard of authors refusing to judge not only Ellora’s Cave Romantica, but Kensington Bravas and Harlequin Blaze titles as well. I’m not sure of an e-book connection either…it just seems that the success of Ellora’s Cave forces a connection.

Tackling the idea that Romantica writers aren’t really writing Romance at all poses a larger set of challenges, because our sexual inhibitions are so deeply rooted in religion and culture. And just as a segment of RWA isn’t happy with more explicitly sexual writing, an equally large, and likely larger, segment of the reading public isn’t happy. Threads on any of our message boards on any given day bemoan how today’s Romances are more explicit than before and that publishers surely must be encouraging authors to “sex it up” – that last was alleged just yesterday in an email I received from one author about another’s experience. And yet, just as Romantica is one of the fastest growing sub-genres in Romance, Inspirational Romance is another fast-growing sub-genre. How in the world can we create an umbrella large enough to fit the needs at both ends, as well as those in-between? Should we even try? Is RWA, an organization that, according to Michele Albert, “presents itself as the ‘voice of romance,'” doing all it can do in order to create a large enough umbrella? Or does it risk alienating members who find its actions censorious at worst, or prejudiced at the very least? What would Groucho Marx say? For Albert, “If an RWA dues-paying member publishes a book by an RWA-approved publisher, they have as much right as any other member to have their site linked at the RWA site regardless of whether or not the content may offend another segment of dues-paying members. If RWA puts in place graphical standards to maintain its own website, then fine. Professional organizations need to look professional and corporate. However, RWA members are individual personalities with individual needs and goals, and RWA is stepping out of bounds to try and control what their members place on the sites they pay for in order to inform their own readership and promote their own books or careers.”

Because of Romance’s step-child position in the world of books, we’ve all spent time defending our reading choices, so it’s very easy to ask whether or not including Romantica in the Romance umbrella makes it/continues to make it difficult for the genre to be taken seriously by the mainstream. Even though more than 50% of the money publishers earn from paperbacks comes from Romance, because it’s written by women for women, suffers from a literary horror of horrors – the convention of the HEA ending – and is all about emotions, I doubt it will ever be taken seriously. So my question becomes: Who cares if the mainstream gets it at this point, especially given how many people read Romance? If it’s done this well with the “bodice-ripper” reputation, does it really matter if that rep continues? Maybe the time has come to knock that collective chip off our shoulders.

It’s possible that RWA took this action simply because their attorneys advised them that more explicit excerpts and covers might cause trouble and so over-reacted in response – indeed, some members believe the organization has a history of doing just that. Certainly that’s a less exciting reason than all the conspiracy theories flying about, but regardless, the topic does translate to us as readers. And RWA has informed its members that they are not “asking erotica writers to get lost,” that a special interest chapter is being formed, and that “as long as it is a romance, it belongs here, under our umbrella.”

A year ago I never would have considered myself a reader of Romantica, and yet this year I’m on an extended glom of it. Before I started to read it I didn’t necessarily understand its allure, but I never suggested that those who liked reading it were not really Romance readers, or were pervs, for that matter. My line in the sand has moved quite a bit in the past few months, though I doubt it’ll move further, and while for me some Romantica is really Erotica with an HEA, not only don’t I make those decisions for anyone other than me, every time I re-read Jaid Black’s definition of Romantica, hers makes more and more sense to me. What about you?

Addiction and Recovery in Romance (Anne Marble)

My first memory of a romance novel about addiction is probably an old Harlequin Presents by Madeline Ker, The Wilder Shores of Love. Not long after that, I read Mary Jo Putney’s The Rake and the Reformer (later expanded The Rake). I bought the MJP probably the week it came out and finished it before the week was up. I was excited to know that romance writers were writing about topics like alcoholism.

I came from the era where many of the most popular Young Adult novels were “problem novels” – stories about addiction, rape, runaways, etc. A lot of these stories were depressing. But some of them stood out in my mind. One of my favorites was a YA novel, Marilyn Harris’ The Runaway’s Diary, about a girl who ran away from home, hitchhiked, met all sorts of people, and wrote about her thoughts on Thoureau. At the very end, we learn that she died in an accident! I also loved William Sleator’s House of Stairs, which got quite grim and had far from a pat ending Oh, and one of my favorite YA books was Evan H. Rhode’s The Prince of Central Park, which had lots of terrible things happening to that poor kid – he was orphaned, he ran away from an abusive aunt (who was a prostitute), faced a horrid bully, endured hunger and food poisoning and terrible weather, and even had to learn to break into places to steal food. While The Prince of Central Park wasn’t as depressing as many of the other books, it was all a far cry from Henry Huggins (even if the TV movie adaptation watered it down too much.) As the problem novel trend went on, some critics complained that the novels were often too depressing, too full of piled-on crises. Still, in the best of books, it was great to read about people my age (or close to it) fighting huge social problems. And in many cases, it pissed me off when the characters ended up dying at the end, or facing uncertain futures.

So then I came to Romance novels. When I first saw romance novels that dealt with social problems like addiction and recovery, I couldn’t wait to find out how the writer dealt with those problem. Maybe if I had read too many problem novels while growing up, I wouldn’t have been so happy to try these books out. But then again, at least in a romance, I knew that as bad as the problems would be, the characters would be able to surmount them

Ironically, some people have complained that the way romances (and genre novels) handle serious topics, such as addiction, is that they often give portrayals that are too pat and unrealistic, something I discussed in a previous ATBF. They point out that because there are other, more important elements in this sort of book (such as the emphasis on romance, plot, exotic worldbuilding, mystery, suspense, etc.), the portrayal of the addiction has to sacrifice some realism. Also, some have argued that the emphasis on the HEA means the problem must be solved quickly, and that’s not always realistic.

In other words, it’s okay to depress generations of schoolchildren with books about kids ruining their lives. But God forbid people should read something like The Rake and the Reformer, where Reggie is able to stop drinking and find the love of his life – and not without some struggles. I can see where the complaints about more simplistic treatments of this sort of story come from. Most often, addiction does ruin (and take) lives, and sometimes we want to scare the sh*t out of a kid so that they know that could happen. But a diet of non-stop grimness is about as tasty as the food the kid in The Prince of Central Park got out of garbage cans. Some variety, please! Besides, not everyone wants to read an in-depth (and depressing!) novel about alcoholism or heroin or whatever every time – those can get too depressing! Also, I believe that sometimes, a genre novel with a hopeful outlook can be more inspiring to someone who is affected by a serious issue. Sometimes, to take the first step, all someone needs is a story that tells them they are not alone.

I’m not the only reader who likes these stories now and then. Maybe other fans grew up reading books like Go Ask Alice. Or maybe they just enjoy stories that have an extra edge. Becky likes romances about addiction and recovery because it gives those stories an extra twist. Of course, like any other fan, she wants the stories (and the issues) to be handled well. The stories aren’t so successful for her when the addicted character comes across as either a victim or a loser, as those character often seem irredeemable. “I think that any sort of addiction can be handled well if we are given enough background and reasons why the person became hooked…i.e. deaths, abusive childhood, or a way of dealing with a traumatic temporary situation. I actually don’t think this has been covered enough, so maybe some authors will get some ideas…”

Elle also likes this story if handled well. “I think that this can be a very moving and powerful storyline when done well, and the story does not have to be relentlessly depressing.” Like many (many many) others, her favorite recovering characters are Nardi from Judy Cuevas’ Bliss and Reggie from Mary Jo Putney’s The Rake. She thinks these stories worked because they dealt with the addiction realistically. The author didn’t wave a “magic wand” to whisk away the problems. Also, the heroine had a part in solving the hero’s problem – she wasn’t the cure. “The heroine’s love helped the hero but in each case he had to find the inner strength to deal with his own addiction.”

While she has read romances about recovered alcoholics, Jorie hasn’t yet come across any where either character started out addicted and then faced recovery. She would be interested in reading stories like that, but she also realizes that the story would require an oh-so delicate balance, just like any other romance about serious issues. “It’s a romance, so the HEA must be there and it must be convincing. But if the addiction (or another serious issue) is not given its due, I find it quite distracting and annoying. Not every author and every book can handle it.”

But not every fan likes this sort of story. Naava doesn’t like reading about addiction or recovery in romances, or fiction in general. She thinks this might be because she gets tired of some of the stereotypical elements: the character longing for a hit or for a drink; the denial; the cliched scene where the character backslides back into the addiction. “This issue can take so much time out of the main story that I grow bored and frustrated. It’s not that I don’t think this theme is a serious issue or that people with addiction don’t deserve loving.. I just will avoid books where this theme is an issue because I just find the time spent dwelling on the ‘addiction’ somewhat depressing.”

Tee cautions that a hopeful outlook on addiction might give the wrong portrayal of a serious issue:”A true addiction to alcohol, drugs or gambling is a very serious issue and the cure is not a Band-Aid process. I’m sure many of us know families that have been ripped apart because of these illnesses. So handling the issues too lightly if they’re included in a romance is not playing fair.” Yet Tee agrees that “going into too much depth probably moves that book into a different genre.” She adds, “Providing hopeful outlooks can be great (we need more of them), but we also know there’s a lot of work involved in serious issues such as these that go along with the hope. I don’t believe we can pass lightly over them just to get quickly to the HEA.”

Tee has a point. The word “addicted” is often used lightly today. (Recently, I saw a news piece about people who were “addicted” to checking their e-mail.) Yet most addictions are serious. The stories about recovery generally should be serious as well. That doesn’t mean they must be without humor – some wonderful memoirs about living through addiction to recovery are bitingly funny – but for the most part, this isn’t a topic that light and fluffy romances are going to handle well. Maybe one reason that some readers are suspicious of romances about addiction is because so many romances today are lighter in tone. Even when the heroes have tortured pasts, the stories are full of banter. Giving a bantering Regency hero a serious opium addiction would be like casting Groucho Marx as Hamlet.

That’s not to say romance novels can’t “handle” addiction. There is still room for serious topics in romance novels, even today. Readers still hunger for these stories. Other genre fiction has mined this rich vein. Recently, I started reading the Matthew Scudder series by mystery writer Lawrence Block. Scudder is an unlicensed private eye, an ex-cop. When the books start out, he is a heavy drinker, but the word “alcoholic” isn’t mentioned until several books into the series, and he doesn’t seek treatment until the breakout book Eight Million Ways to Die. Maybe because these books are part of a series, they are able to trace Scudder’s alcoholism in a more realistic way, over time, from denial to acceptance and the bumpy road to recovery. Most romance novels can’t do this, so they have to either make the recovery seem too easy, or write about a character whose recovery was in the past, or concentrate on only one part of the recovery (the “slice-of-life” approach), without making the future too dark and thus muddying the HEA. Done well, and you can have a hopeful portrayal of people triumphing over their problems. Done badly, and you end up with the equivalent of those “very special episodes” prevalent in so many sitcoms, where the characters face a serious problem, only to forget completely it next week.

Addiction in Contemporaries

Most romances about addiction are contemporaries. In some ways, this could be because many of the specific problems are unique to our time. While addiction has always been with us, many of the substances themselves have not. You couldn’t have a story about heroin addiction set during the Regency because heroin wasn’t discovered until 1874. Also, this prevalence could be because we more closely associate social problems with our current time. Even though addictions have always existed, many of them weren’t well understood until modern times. A Victorian heroine who shopped till she dropped would have been considered a spendthrift, not an addict, but today, we can have books such as Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic Some addictions are still looked at askance today – is that guy on the talk show really just a sex addict, or is he just a lech who got caught?

Indeed, contemporary novels cover the gamut of serious addictions, from alcoholism (Suzanne Brockmann’s Heart Throb and Katherine Sutcliffe’s Darkling, I Listen) to drugs (Paula Detmer Riggs’ Taming the Night and Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s A Risk Worth Taking) to gambling (Lauren Nichols’ The Accidental Heiress). But they can also be about workaholics (Suzanne Brockmann’s Embraced by Love and Dorien Kelly’s Do-Over), shopaholics, and so forth – addictions we don’t always think of as addictions.

All types of authors have taken on these issues in the contemporary romance. These authors range from buried treasure authors such as Theresa Weir to big name authors such as Catherine Anderson, Suzanne Brockmann, and of course, Nora Roberts. The hero of Nora Roberts’ Northern Lights is recovering from alcoholism while the hero of Black Rose has been on the wagon for more than a decade. She also had a secondary character in Homeport starting on the road to recovery. Readers have praised her because she doesn’t make the recovery easy.

Addiction in Historicals

There are quite a few contemporary romances about recovery, but not so many historicals. They are out there, of course — like others, one of the first things I thought of on this topic was Reggie Davenport in MJP’s The Rake. And others thought of Nardi in Judy Cuevas’s Bliss right off the bat. But the numbers of characters like Reggie and Nardi are smaller. AAR’s Special Title Listing on Addiction Romances literally lists twice as many contemporary romances with this theme as historicals.

I have several possible theories for this. Some of them might even be right. It’s possible that writers avoid addressing these topics in historicals because the problems seem harder to solve – there are fewer doctors and counselors trained in addiction. After all, one of the main complaints about Megan Chance’s The Portrait is that the hero and heroine face a grim future together as there are no drugs to treat his bipolar disorder. Or maybe the problem is the fact that the historical romance already comes with so much extra, such as the historical background, that there isn’t as much room for addiction and recoveries. Then again, maybe readers prefer historicals that don’t touch upon such serious “modern-day” issues, preferring to relegate those issues to the present.

Diana and Rosario both mention Nardi of Judy Cuevas’s Bliss. Diana likes the way Nardi doesn’t apologize for being a tragic character. “Nope, he insists on being happy while cheerfully agreeing that he is the family black sheep who should be locked away in a country cottage. When we first meet Nardi he’s barfing into a piano in someone else’s parlor.” Like many other readers, Diana had a hard time thinking that this man could be transformed into a likable hero, but Cuevas pulled it off for her. Rosario thinks that Nardi’s recovery didn’t come across as too easy because most of it happened “off-screen.” Once readers see him again, “he’s pretty much recovered. His attempts to get ether after that seemed to be motivated more by his desire to goad his brother than from any real need for it.”

In The Rake, most of Reggie’s recovery takes place on-screen. However, the reader comes into the story just as he is beginning to accept that he has a problem, even before meeting the heroine. One reason for the story’s realism was that Reggie’s road to recovery was bumpy. He stopped drinking, but then succumbed again. When he fell back into addiction, his plunge was hard, and he became a real ass in the way the treated the heroine. Also, while she was there for him, he had to pull himself out of the mire. There were a couple of times I thought the discussions about alcoholism were a little too modern, but at the same time, I think MJP did a good job of avoiding modern lingo and bringing to light 19th-century treatises about alcoholism that reminded the readers that wise people existed in the past, too.

But Reggie and Nardi aren’t the only historical characters facing addictions. A much darker portrayal is the hero (some readers would put that in quotes) in While You Slept by Wendy Burge, recommended by Malvina. She describes the her as wild and wounded, and a serious alcoholic, and the heroine as abused but determined. She adds, “Sion Sinclair, Marquis of Dereham, is working very hard to kill himself with drink following the death of his wife in childbirth. He can’t get the sight of her blood out of his head. He barely registers when his servants bring an unconscious, unknown woman into his house following a carriage accident. But when the last servant is driven away by his drunken rage, he suddenly remembers he has to care for her, and the story goes on from there.” This hero was dark enough that AAR’s reviewer positively loathed him.

In Patricia Ryan’s Medieval, Secret Thunder, the hero, Luke, is addicted to catnip. Luke is a reluctant warrior, and the addiction enables him to kill. This addiction adds a new angle to the old story of the reluctant warrior who wants to settle down. Also, writing as P. B. Ryan, her hero in the historical mystery Still Life with Murder (set in Boston during the Gilded Age) is an opium fiend.

Deborah Simmons’ My Lord de Burgh is also a Medieval with an addicted hero. But in this one, the hero is a debauched alcoholic, good for chasing skirts and little else. The heroine’s faith in him helps transform this drunkard into true hero material.

Addicted heroes – and heroines – are found more frequently in the Regency era. Both MJP and Carla Kelly have written about heroines who helped reform alcoholic heroes (in The Rake and in Reforming Lord Ragsdale). Carla Kelly also portrayed the beginnings of alcoholism in a secondary character in Libby’s London Merchant, Nez, who got his own book in One Good Turn. Melanie George wrote about an opium-addicted hero in Naughty or Nice.

Ironically, when it comes to addictions, I think of London first (with gambling and lots of drink and opium) and American history first. Yet there is no shortage of American historicals about addiction. Alcoholic heroes can be found in Megan Chance’s A Candle in the Dark, Ellen Fisher’s A Light in the Darkness, Lori Handeland’s Nate, Alex Harrington’s Allie’s Moon, and Mary McBride’s Darling Jack. And before you think that these are all novels about heroines helping heroes overcome their addictions, Maggie Osborne gives us an alcoholic heroine in The Wives of Bowie Stone.

But what about opium? You’d think opium fiends would be more prevalent in historicals. There are some, though. The hero of MJP’s The Bargain (an expansion of her Regency romance The Would-Be Widow) suffers an addiction to laudanum when he is recovering from wounds suffered at Waterloo. Though it’s an historical and not an historical romance, some fans think of the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett first as an historical about recovery. The hero (or is that the anti-hero?) of the series fights an opium addiction in Checkmate. Back to historicals, opium addiction also raises its ugly head in Gayle Wilson’s His Secret Duchess, a historical romance.

There are other types of addiction in historicals, although they’re harder to point a finger at. Elle also mentions other kinds of addictions, ones we don’t always think about. “Addiction to sex (a la Wade Boggs) is relatively common among historical romance heroes, but is usually cured with the snap of the heroine’s virginal fingers (or something like that!) Susan Johnson’s hero in Sinful is one sex addict that I can think of offhand who went back to his old ways for a while despite having already bedded the virginal heroine.” She also mentions risk junkies as a type of addict – for example, the heroines from Connie Brockway’s All Through the Night and from Liz Carlyle’s The Devil to Pay, and the hero from Anne Stuart’s Prince of Swords. While these aren’t what we think of as addictions, they can be a form of addiction, and these can be great stories.

Gambling As an Addiction

It’s hard to think of Regency London without thinking of gambling hells. Gambling is also a part of today’s culture, from state-run lotteries to casinos to betting on the game. Yet at the same time, it’s hard to think of any heroes (or heroines) who actually became addicted to gambling. More often than not, Regency heroes are able to gamble the night away and make their fortune. Having visited Las Vegas a couple of times, I find that astonishing! Then again, Regency gambling hells didn’t have slot machines. Maybe if they did, those cool, collected Regency heroes would have lost their estates on the turn of a handle rather than the turn of a card.

Gambling was definitely a big part of London society for many years, not just during the Regency. As Ellen Micheletti says in her Historical Cheat Sheet article on Gambling in England, “One writer I came across said that just as gin was the ruination of the lower classes, gambling was the ruination of the upper classes.”

Certainly heroines’ father and brothers and other useless male relatives prove that point. There are many books where the heroine finds herself in an arranged marriage because her father, brother, cousin, uncle, you name him gambled the family fortune away. But in most cases, that isn’t really a portrayal of gambling addiction. It’s more like a really awkward way to meet the hero.

Heroes do sometimes lose their way at the gambling table as well. Yet for all the heroes who lose a fortune in the gambling parlor (such as Sir Rodney Hampton in Carla Kelly’s The Lady’s Companion), it seems that there aren’t that many romances that are really about gambling or about recovering from gambling at all. There is the hero of Amanda McCabe’s Signet Regency, The Golden Feather. And a secondary character in The Accidental Heiress, a Silhouette Intimate Moments by Lauren Nichols. And the hero of Emilie Richards’ Beatiful Lies originally drove his wife away because of compulsive gambling.

But when someone says “gambling addicts in romances,” few people can name any at all. Yet many people can think of alcoholics such as Reggie Davenport or ether addicts such as Nardi. Maybe part of the problem is that romance hasn’t yet had the novel about gambling addiction. There hasn’t been a The Rake or a Bliss about gambling.

Elle says, “I cannot think of a historical romance with a hero or heroine with a serious gambling addiction. The idea is touched upon in Georgette Heyer’s Friday’s Child (both the hero and heroine run up substantial gambling debts), but there is not a focus on the difficulty in giving up a compulsive addiction. Frequently, there are secondary characters with gambling addictions (usually idiotic brothers or fathers who shame and beggar the heroine and drive her to extreme behavior – e.g. Portia in Jo Beverley’s Tempting Fortune).”

Why is this? Is this because people still find it hard to relate to gambling as an addiction? We’ve all heard that alcoholism is a disease, but even today, people are reluctant to accept that a gambling addiction is anything other than a vice. The same people who have no problem accepting a story about a hero recovering from drugs or alcohol might have problems with a character who gambles himself into debt. Or maybe there’s another problem. While gaming hells are accepted as a part of historicals, gambling turns off readers when it’s in a contemporary setting. It’s probably one of those “killer” settings – few readers want to read books about casinos or professional card players or dealers. Yet unless you’re writing about someone playing the numbers on the street (not exactly hero material!), it’s hard to write about a gambling addiction in any other setting. Alcoholism, on the other hand, can be found in any setting, and in any era.

Whatever the addiction, there is a chance for a romance novelist to stretch the boundaries and create a book that is something special. It can be gritty, or it can be angsty, or it can be hopeful. However, writers who dare to broach these topics know that they are walking a tightrope, or even a razor blade. First, not everyone wants to pick up a romance novel and be reminded of social problems – I’ve seen reviews where fans panned an otherwise terrific book simply because the hero or heroine was an alcoholic. Also, they have to be at the top of their forms. The slightest misstep can be disastrous. Romance novels are already a balance of romance and other elements, but the author who writes about serious issues has to balance the gravity of recovery with the hope of love and redemption.

So why do writers take this sort of chance? The answer “Because they can” isn’t quite enough. I think the answer might be “Because they must.” Also, writers don’t generally take the risk of writing about addiction and similar issues unless they think their story can make a difference. Many writers must challenge themselves by pushing the envelope, even if it means losing some fans. They know that while they will lose some fans who want only the fantasy, they might gain some who are anxiously awaiting something new.

So why do so many readers want to go along for the ride? Carolyn may hold the answers when she admits that she becomes bored with “romance lite.” She is searching for romances “with a little bit more darkly, richly woven textures and that often times involves a tortured protagonist.” As a fan of historicals, she would love to see more historicals about addiction. Also, she has become eager to read any story that offers her something new, something that avoids the typical plots, from writers who deliver darker, more intense stories. For readers who sometimes tire of banter and quips and mysteries that aren’t mysterious, romance novels about serious topics such as addiction and recovery are one doorway they can open.

Time to post to the Message Board

Please consider these questions in addition to others that may have arisen out of your reading of the column:

As a reader, whether or not you read Romantica or even very sexy Romance, how do you react to the actions of the RWA board? Do you think the RWA board was acting to protect its non-profit status? To keep members from linking to “inappropriate” sites? To protect the image of Romance Fiction?

For many readers the most important aspects of a Romance are the HEA and the fact that the story is about the relationship, with other elements being secondary. Yet many stories classified under “romance” (such as Chick Lit and some Romantic Suspense) do not really qualify this way, while much Romantica does. keeping this in mind, do you think highly sensual content suddenly pushes the story out of Romance territory?

A lot of people see Romantica and hot or burning Romance as a new thing, and not necessarily a good thing. Yet many readers disagree and think the genre had toned down for a while. For many years, Romantic Times has had several designations for sensuality level – sweet, sensual, sexy, and spicy. In a recent issue several Romantica titles were designated as “sexy” rather than “spicy.” Not a single one earned the “spicy” designation, which seemed to be used more often in the past. Does that mean those newer stories were less explicit than the older ones, or have standards shifted so that what was once considered spicy is now considered simply sexy?

Does Romance’s image and reputation need to be protected? Romance readers themselves cannot always agree on what makes a good Romance novel. Do we really want to depend on how “outsiders” view the genre?

What do you think of the three covers shown in the article? Have you seen covers that were more “shocking” than the Ann Jacobs cover? Is this cover just a sacrificial lamb? If, on the other hand, Jacobs’ book was denied permission to be signed at RWA’s booth at the BEA because RWA’s executive editor decided it wasn’t a romance, which reason is more telling?

Do you like romances about addiction and related issues, and if so, why? Or do you prefer to keep that kind of story out of your romantic reading?

Do you believe that romances shouldn’t address addiction and recovery because they so often make the stories too optimistic and make the path to recovery seem too easy? If so, are you comfortable with stories that take place only after the person has recovered?

Why do you think historicals are less likely to be about addiction and recovery? Is it because the problems seem harder to solve in a historical setting? Because in many historicals, there is simply no “room” for this kind of plot? Or because in today’s marketplace, so many people prefer to keep their historicals free of such issues?

Would you read an historical story about a gambling addiction? Why or why not? Also, would you accept a contemporary story about a gambling addict, or would that have a different “tone” to it, perhaps because the gaming hell is romantic, and modern day casinos are not?

What balance do you think the stories should have between the addiction/recovery plot and the other elements, such as the romance? Would you ever read a light or humorous novel that had a subplot about addiction and/or recovery, or would you avoid it like the plague? Do you think it is possible to combine lighter stories with such serious plots?

What about other types of addictions? Would you enjoy stories about workaholics, shopaholics, and so forth? Or are you less likely to consider those as addictions?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books and Anne Marble

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)