At the Back Fence Issue #270

July 9, 2007 

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

Let It Be

Right after reading several romances in a row, I felt the need to take a breather. Up first was the ARC for an adventure novel, not my usual cup of tea. The writing style and lack of character development had me wishing it had been written by Bernard Cornwell rather than David Gibbins. After that, I still wasn’t quite ready to return to romance, so I looked over the “high end” fiction authors I like to read, and realized that it had been a while since I visited Marge Piercy.

I was introduced to Piercy by a college professor who recommended Woman on the Edge of Time, a feminist/time travel novel. A strong read, to be sure, and a provocative one, but it was Gone to Soldiers in the late 1980s – lauded by Newsweek , the L.A. Times, and others – that solidified her as a must-read author for me. Summer People is perhaps my least favorite of her novels, but the 2005-published Sex Wars, which I just read, is right up there with Gone to Soldiers.

Sex Wars fictionalizes the lives of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, and Anthony Comstock in a novel set in the post Civil War U.S., and Gilded Age New York. Piercy uses the themes of sexual politics, feminism, and the exploitation of immigrants to bring historical and fictional characters and settings to life. In addition to Stanton, Woodhull, and Comstock, Piercy introduces Freydah Levin, a Russian Jewish immigrant whose husband died in the violence of gang-ridden New York. Freydah works to make a life for herself, and to find the sister who emigrated to the U.S. without her knowledge. Freydah knows that her sister is lost in the vast and dangerous city. Eventually Freydah’s desire to earn a living puts her on a collision course with Anthony Comstock, whose Puritanical legacy persisted long after his death.

I am generally not a fan of books that fictionalize real people, because they too often act as place marks in the story, artificially inserted for superficial reasons. Not so in Sex Wars. Real historical characters are rendered vibrantly – I came away wondering how Piercy was able to dig so deeply into their lives – their psyches – that I forgot I was reading fiction. The author’s exploration of women and how they fared is, as always, the basis for Piercy’s fiction, but equally as intriguing in Sex Wars were her descriptions of New York during the period, particularly for the poor. She captures the sights, sounds, and smells of New York in a time before the social welfare net, when racism and sexism were overt rather than covert, creates a very believable history for Anthony Comstock. Piercy intertwines Comstock’s life with the book’s characters in such a way that the reader deeply understands that his long-lasting crusade affected more people than the reader might otherwise suspect.

I finished this riveting read in one sitting, and have since reflected on it, stunned at the power of Piercy’s words. I’ve actually been unable to pick up another book since finishing Sex Wars, but after reading the ATBF Forum over the last week and a half about the HEA ending, I saw a connection that I wanted to explore. That connection has to do with genre conventions. I wondered if a happily ever after ending is a requirement for a romance novel, whether or not genre conventions create mediocrity, and finally, what part the HEA ending plays on romance’s lack of respect in the mainstream.

Okay…I’ll admit it. I need an HEA in my romance reading. For me it’s the one and only requirement of a romance novel. There are no rules as far as I’m concerned about the first 300 or 400 pages in a romance, as long as by the end of the book, the couple has gotten together and is on their way to spending their lives in bliss. In a discussion on another of our forums, the question of “what constitutes a romance novel couple?” was raised. The poster indicated he needs the couple to be a man and a woman…period. Well, that’s not the case for me. It’s true that in love scenes, woman on woman action makes me a little squeamish, but I heeded the long-ago advice of a couple of AAR reviewers who happened to be gay and bi-sexual: Focus on the emotions and sexual feelings, not the body parts.

Obviously romance novels are far more than a few love scenes. Equally obvious, at least to me, is the reason why I prefer love scenes in romance novels and erotic romance novels to intimate scenes in erotic novels: Intimacy is arousing to me in the context of a relationship that I’ve come to care about. Without that relationship, it’s no more than “Tab B into Slot A”. Without that investment, I’m just not all that interested in reading about it.

Because a romance novel for me is primarily about the love relationship, I’m less concerned about the sex of the two people involved. On the other hand, one of the reason I read romance novels is because of my attraction to its yummy heroes.Well, what if there isn’t a hero – yummy or otherwise? Am I talking out of both sides of my mouth here? Have I allowed political correctness to creep into my thinking because I believe in gay marriage? I don’t think so, but there is a difference between how I read a romance featuring two men or a woman and a man and how I read a romance featuring two women. Intellectually I read them all the same, and emotionally I do as well, but there’s a reason, I think, why male on male romance has become popular with women. Not only does it offer one yummy hero…it offers two. Two heroines, well, I happen to know a lesbian couple and believe in their love, but as a woman who has never been sexually attracted to another woman, I can never “feel” their intimacy…and quite honestly don’t want to.

If it sounds as though I’m compartmentalizing, well, I am. I tend to compartmentalize and label in just about all facets of my life; it helps me deal with the fact that I am all over the place when it comes to inclinations as regards people and things and entertainment. I love my husband, but the only thing we have in common is that we have nothing in common. And if I turn on the TV tonight, I might watch Burn Notice (just about my favorite new show), or a documentary on one of the Barbarian tribes. As far as music goes, because of my daughter I now enjoy harder rock than I ever thought I would…but I still love the R&B grooves of the more mainstream Maroon 5. Sometimes I’m in the mood for spicy Thai food or five-course French cuisine. At other times, a simple dish of avocado, Vidalia onion, and fresh summer tomato at the local market really hits the spot. And given the amount of time I spend talking about entertainment, I know I’m not the only one who likes both high art and the low-brow, who appreciates both cultural refinements and pop culture, and who feels equally at home with the humor of Oscar Wilde and Jerry Seinfeld. And, even though I am one of the unwashed masses, yes, I “get” Jane Austen, even if Newsweek begs to differ.

Yet I know the difference between dinner at Chilis and dinner at La Bernardin. Both may satisfy me, depending on my mood, but they don’t offer the same type of meal. And that’s alright. I’m fascinated by chefs like Spain’s Ferran Adria, whose molecular gastronomy has taken the world by a storm, but I can still appreciate the delights of a wonderful hamburger grilled by the pool on a hot summer day. A hamburger doesn’t need to given the Daniel Boulud treatment by being stuffed with truffles and foie gras to be delicious. It’s okay that I like pop music; it’s popular, after all, for a reason – it appeals to a lot of people. With all of these things, though, I don’t want a steady diet of any one of them, which is why my iPod looks like it does. Green Day and the Hall & Oates…the Clash and the Manhattan Transfer…Joe Williams and the All-American Rejects? Oh my.

It’s the same as far as reading is concerned: I look for different things in different types of books. For me, romance novels are like comfort food. Great comfort food can be every bit as sublime as a great dish by a five-star chef. But they aren’t the same. And they don’t have to be. And they shouldn’t be.

A romance novel is defined at Wikipedia as: “A literary genre developed in Western culture, mainly in English-speaking countries. To be considered a part of the romance genre, a novel should place its primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an ’emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.'” This matches my own definition of a romance novel, which is that a romance focuses on a relationship and has a happy ending. In and of itself, that’s a pretty broad definition. The only constraints are that the romance is the focus and that the couple find a happy ending; this is why I read romance to begin with. If I am not interesting in these things, I choose to read something else. If I feel burned out by romance novels, I pick up something else until the romance craving hits me.

It may sound odd for the publisher of a romance novel website to say this, but I think part of the reason those of us who read the most romance novels are also the biggest complainers about them is that we simply read too many of them. Who among us hasn’t over-done a glom on a particular author? I think it’s the same for romance novels as a whole; if you read too many of them in a row, you’re going to become dissatisfied with them. Indeed, you may eventually find the genre constraints, well, too constraining.

Unfortunately, because romance novels have been dissed for so long, it’s almost impossible to separate the negativity from the genre itself, even for those of us who read it. As a result, I think there are readers who feel the need to “elevate” the genre in order for it to gain “respect”. But for some readers, elevating the genre eliminates the genre’s foundation altogether. It also begs a couple of larger questions. First, why does a reader need outside validation for the books she likes to read? And secondly, why isn’t it enough that a romance novel is simply entertaining…why must it do more?

There’s an interesting show on Food TV called Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Each week he throws down the gauntlet to a cook who has achieved acclaim for a particular dish…be it macaroni and cheese or chowder or pizza or ice cream. The cook and Flay present a dish to judges, who proclaim a winner. Invariably it comes down to whether or not the judges are looking for dishes that stay true to the traditions of the dish, or if they instead want the gourmet version of it. Generally it’s the former, and Flay doesn’t win. But when he turns the tables and wins, my general feeling is that the judges were snobs. If somebody offers me the best bowl of mac’n’cheese ever, I want the best bowl of basic mac’n’cheese…not a bowl of mac’n’cheese suitable for service in a Michelin-starred restaurant, because by that point it doesn’t really taste like mac’n’cheese any more.

Mac’n’cheese that doesn’t look or taste like mac’n’cheese are like those chairs you see in the fancy design magazines. They are often gorgeous works of art. But in many cases, you can’t imagine anyone sitting in them and feeling comfortable unless they had the anatomy of a space alien. Sometimes furniture reaches the point where it is no longer a chair, but instead, some kind of Statement.

And that’s the problem I have with those who think romance novels don’t need an HEA, particularly since many with that belief blame the HEA on mediocrity. If a romance novel defies its constraints and definition, is it truly a romance any more? True, there’s a lot of mediocrity in romance today, but is there really more than there was a decade ago, or fifteen years ago? Or have we all simply read too many that we need more breaks in our reading to feel renewed and refreshed where romance is concerned? Yes, I know many argue that the late 80s and early 90s were the Golden Age of Romance, but is that simply the result of looking at history through rose-colored glasses?

Go back to the start, when you first began to read romance. It may have been ten years ago – or 20 – or just five. I imagine all of us, regardless of how long ago it was that we picked up our first romance, read many, many DIK reads in the first year, or two, or three. But as the few reads become a dozen, and then dozens, and then fifty, a hundred, two hundred, five hundred, a thousand, and more, didn’t we find fewer and fewer keepers? Think of how fresh and vital characters, premises, and plots first seemed…and then of those same characters, premises, and plots after premises, character types, and themes after your 100th romance. Hadn’t the vitality dimmed? My question is this: Is it more accurate to say romance has gotten stale, or that romance has gotten stale for you? Has romance really changed, or have you? What could you do to make romance read fresh and new again for you?

My answer is that a steady diet of any type of reading will eventually create staleness, but genre fiction more so, and more quickly than other types of reading because, by definition, genre fiction is constrained by conventions – be they mystery, thriller, western, or romance conventions. It’s just like your mother told you, “Everything in moderation.”

Not all of our reviews are romance reviews; most of us who write at AAR read fairly widely, and one of the reasons we do so is that after so many romances in a row under our belt, we know we’ve got to mix it up. It’s not that we want to give up mac’n’cheese entirely, or to change the recipe for mac’n’cheese. We just want to eat something else for a while so we’ll once again crave the mac’n’cheese. If we didn’t switch things up, each reviewer’s grading of romances will suddenly look like a string of C’s and D’s, and those of us who write this column would have nothing positive to say. We’re no different than you – all of us are primarily readers, and all of us who write at AAR or frequent it regularly are committed to reading romance. To keep that commitment strong, though, requires what may sound like counterintuitive advice. Don’t only read romance, broaden your horizons. You might find that your dissatisfaction with the genre as whole lessens considerably.

I’ll leave you with this cautionary tale. My daughter has always been somewhat of a glom eater. For days and days she may want to eat the same food or foods over and over and over again. Invariably, by the time she’s reached her limit, those foods she adored so much she couldn’t stop eating them, are more or less off limits for weeks, months, or even longer, all because she couldn’t pace herself. As a mom, I’d much rather she spread her eating of two pounds of blueberries over a period of weeks, interspersed with strawberries and bananas rather than consuming those same two pounds in three days (and not eating much else during the same time period)…and I’m not exaggerating. As the publisher of AAR, I feel the same way about our readers.

Questions To Consider:

Do you only read romance, or do you read other fiction/non-fiction? What percentage of your reading is comprised of romance novels? Are there any particular times you deviate from romance reading? Is it only when you’re in a romance slump, or is it more regular than that?

Do you compartmentalize your reading? Do you turn to different kinds of fiction/non-fiction because you’re looking for different kinds of reads? Is reading a romance akin to eating comfort food – is it your mac’n’cheese – or would you prefer the romances you read to be “more” than that?

After reading our last ATBF and forum, did your opinion change on the great HEA debate, or has it continued to hold steady? Can a romance novel truly be a romance novel without an HEA?

How do you define genre romance novels? Is it similar to the Wikipedia definition, or is it more broad? Does your definition apply solely to a couple of the opposite sex, or does it include same sex romance? Laurie mentioned that her sexual orientation creates a barrier to her enjoyment of lesbian love scenes that doesn’t exist in her reading of gay love scenes, even though she’s there emotionally for both gay and lesbian couples…what about you?

Was there really a “Golden Age” of romance, or is that simply looking at history through rose-colored glasses? How long have you read romance? Is it possible that it’s less that the genre has changed than you simply now, after having read so many romances, you’re that much harder to please?

Are you concerned about the lack of respect romance novels have in the mainstream? If so, why? Does it lessen your enjoyment of them to know that others may scoff at your choice of reading material? Have you ever downplayed your romance reading because of that lack of respect?

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

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)