Thursday, November 12, 2009

How "Romance Novels" Take the Romance Out of Romance

How “Romance Novels” Take the Romance out of Romance

by Alan Elsner

       This may be my most controversial contribution. Please let me say upfront, I don’t wish to denigrate or dismiss the work of any of my fellow authors. Still, I feel a need to get these thoughts off my chest. As author of a novel called Romance Language, I’m often asked if I’d written a “romance novel.” My instinctive answer was to say “no” -- but I hadn’t actually read any romance fiction for many years so I went to the library and borrowed a stack. I must admit, I was quite surprised at what I read. Here are some general conclusions from my not-very-scientific survey:

1) Most romance novels take place either in a relatively few “historical” periods and venues. The most common are Regency England, featuring clones of Mr. Darcy; medieval England featuring knights in armor; Scotland, with kilted gentlemen growling “aye lassie” at frequent intervals; or contemporary America, usually in rural areas of the South, New England or the Pacific Northwest or in New York and L.A. Not many of these books happen in Reformation Germany or ancient Rome or Brazil or North Dakota for some reason.
2) The female protagonist, who is young, feisty and gorgeous, has been damaged by a childhood trauma such as the tragic loss of her parents. All alone in the world, she is proudly independent but distrustful of others. She longs for love but is also afraid to love.
3) The male protagonist is normally older and full of self-confidence, a prototypical alpha male who doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He’s hunky but haughty. For all his sexual experience, he’ll soon find himself way out of his depth when this chit of a girl awakens feelings he’s never known.
4) The two experience an immediate mutual attraction. But they can’t immediately hook up because of some perceived barrier -- usually based on a misunderstanding.
5) Despite their initial dislike, the two are usually exchanging fluids by around page 60. This involves detailed and highly explicit descriptions of kissing, oral sex, mutual masturbation and full penetration. Both parties experience mind-blowing orgasms, described in excruciating detail.
6) An evil character emerges to threaten the two protagonists and their relationship, through social scheming or actual violence.
7) The hero rescues the heroine (or vice versa) and they engaged in even more mind-blowing sex, resulting in even more cataclysmic climaxes. Marriage and children soon follow and they live happily ever after.

I have nothing against such escapist fiction in principle. But I simply don’t find these books romantic. Let’s compare them for a moment to the grand-mommy of all romantic fiction, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In that wonderful book, the two leading characters share a strong physical attraction – but it is scarcely overwhelming or determinative. The real romance takes place in their heads as they change and grow and shape themselves for each other. It is only when Elizabeth Bennett perceives the true moral character of Mr. Darcy that she allows herself to love him. It is only when Darcy understands that he must win Elizabeth through his actions rather than just relying on his social rank that the relationship becomes possible.

 I should note here that I don’t do explicit sex in my books. That’s not because I’m squeamish or repressed. Partly, it’s because it’s so easy to write bad sex scenes and so difficult to write good ones. In romance novels, these scenes are pretty much all alike, relying on strained metaphors while indulging in graphic anatomical detail. But mostly, it’s because I’m interested in love rather than in sex – and love takes place in the mind where it has to fight for its existence against all the other challenges presented by life.

In the romance novels I have read, love is expressed through sex and only through sex. The fact that the hero and the heroine can provide each other with tremendous orgasms becomes proof positive of their undeniable love. If the sex is that good, the love must be real. As for the historic settings for these books, they are usually little more than an excuse to dress the characters in period dress that can then be lovingly discarded in the sex scenes.

The true disservice that the “romance” genre does is that it sucks all the oxygen out of the room. It sets up expectations and lays down rules of what “romance” should be. Publishers expect writers to follow these rules. So do readers. Anyone trying to write a “real” love story involving real people grappling with real dilemmas is breaking the rules of the game.


KatieBee said...

Thank you SO much for expressing what is frequently my dilemma as a reader. I want to read LOVE stories, and while I recognize and appreciate that sex is part of love, it is not the whole picture. That's also what's wrong with movies today. The characters fall into bed and then start the courtship. It's all backwards and wrong. Being blown away by a physical sensation is fine, but that's porn and not love. I'm interested in stories where the characters have to change and struggle and work to be together, because they love each other---completely, and not just physically. I have absolutely no objection to a good sex scene, but it's so much better when A)it involves people who have been through the MENTAL process of falling in love before the sex happens and B) I find it much more exciting when something is left to the imagination. For example, I could write a shower-sex scene in all its gory detail...but wouldn't it be more titillating to read that Party A felt the air get cold because the shower door was open, and Party B was standing there, wearing nothing but an expression of askance? End scene. Let the reader supply the slippery details in their mind. That way, it's probably a lot more erotic for the reader, who will finish the scene the way they choose, and also it eliminates the possibility of the author unwittingly educating some innocent bystander. The reader will only mentally take the scene to their highest level of personal experience. I find that I prefer a few sexy details to the whole drawn-out act. Perhaps ONE good, full-length love scene is in order, but they should not be occurring in regular, 20 page intervals. Subscribe to Cosmo, for God's sake, if that is all you want to read. Sex is part of life. Sex is part of love--maybe even a central, essential part. But it's not the whole, and when people lose sight of that, they are not writing love.

Susan Macatee said...

Wow! These sound like the romance novels I read 20 years ago! There are so many variations in the genre now. Stories are set in all historical time periods, including ancient Rome, and I've found stories set in Russia, Germany...and in all time periods up to and including World War II...

There are also paranormal romances, romances with kick-butt heroines and stories set in the future, many on alien planets.

The books you're describing sound way out of date, compared to the great romances I read and write today.

If what you're describing was all the romance genre had to offer, I'd be disenchanted too!

Susan Macatee said...

I'd like to add that I think it's only the major publishers who expect writers to adhere to these rules. If you visit one of the small or e-book publishers, you'll find a wide variation of heat levels in books.

My publisher, The Wild Rose Press, accepts stories ranging from the wildly erotic, to sweet stories with either no sex scenes or if there are any, they happen behind closed doors, allowing the readers to use their imaginations.

Mary Ricksen said...

Sad but true. And if you want to be published you must write this way.
Sadly, sex sells, erotic books sell way more than sensual books do. People want sex, that's why writers write it that way.

K9friend said...

Romance novels have different categories because readers are often quite specific in what they want to read. Therefore they look within their area of interest.

And that's really true with most books, isn't it? If I want to read a thriller, I most likely won't be satisfied with a western.

I don't think it's right or wrong. It think it's just a matter of choice.

Donna Alice said...

Despite their initial dislike, the two are usually exchanging fluids by around page 60.

Okay --- I have to admit I loved the way this was phrased!! It is so true that people who write 'romance' novels seldom write romantic novels - but rather anatomy books! I'm more of the generation where those scenes fade to black and the imagination is left up to the reader.

Characters who grow and change are much more interesting than those who are just exchanging fluids!

nlindabrit said...

When I was a teen, I remember putting off reading Georgette Heyer's novels because when I asked what type of book they were, my mum said they were Regency romances. They are indeed Regency romances, but, of course, they are also full of life and humour and peopled with fantastic characters who add a whole other dimension to the novels.

I become bored by novels with repetitive sex scenes and have to agree that a story can be far more erotic and arousing if plenty is left to the imagination. I have at least some sympathy with your views on the Romance genre, though I think you are a little harsh in your condemnation:)

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