Bodice rippers, feminist literature, or just good yarns (Part 3 of 3)

This is the last part of the article based on my talk at Featherston Booktown. Part 1 talked about Dangerous Books for Girls, and the first of six reasons that romances are a threat to the establishment. Part 2 gave three more reasons. So here are the last two.

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#5 Because female orgasms

Romance novels are about people falling in love, which means (whether they are at the sweet end of the spectrum or far down the other end at erotica) they are about people who feel a sexual attraction to one another. This might well be a revelation to some now, as it was 200 years ago. Women have sexual desires. Women experience sexual pleasure. And women’s feelings, sensations and experiences are different to those of men.

A novel is a safe place to explore sexuality. It can’t make you pregnant. People don’t get STDs by taking books out of the library. Romance novels tell women that a hero cares for the pleasure of his beloved; that he puts her pleasure ahead of his own. Dangerous Books indeed!

And today’s best romance writers are very good at writing about sex, unlike the authors celebrated in the annual ‘Bad Sex Awards’, from which comes this gem:

Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.

Compare the list of ‘Bad Sex Award’ excerpts to the list of scenes that will get you hot and bothered, or this one, which is a first kiss.

She opened her mouth, already shaking her head, and he hurried on to say his piece before she could object. “You could marry me. I don’t flatter myself that I am a prize, but I am a better bet than Hackerton. Marry me, and let me care for you, Rose.” He bent, curving low to capture her mouth. It was as soft and full as it looked, though at first stiff and unresponsive.

But she followed his lead in this as she had in the dance, and what had begun as an impulsive gesture to prevent her from saying no became a luxurious vortex that spun him out of space and time until he was oblivious of everything except the giving, the taking, the sharing of their lips, their tongues, their mouths.

She looked dazed when he drew back. Well, good. He was dazed. He gathered her against his chest and rested his cheek on her hair. “Marry me, Rose,” he repeated.

#6 Because HEA

If a fictional heroine escapes the confines of the house, chooses love, has orgasmic sex, and dies at the end of the story, the message is clear: Don’t try this at home. But if she lives happily ever after? The message is also clear: Live the dream, girl!

In romance novels, the heroine lives. Not only that, she lives happily ever after, which is shorthand for a life of being loved for oneself and for having achieved a measure of security.
(Dangerous Books for Girls, by Maya Rodale)

Unhappy endings appear to be a convention in literary novels. They may be beautifully written, challenging, interesting, and effective in their own way. But they are not hopeful, and people need hope if they are to change their lives. Live the Dream!

While I’m here, can I just dispose of one particular feminist critique of romantic fiction, that it teaches women to believe that happiness lies in a successful love affair? Excuse me? This is a romance. Read the label on the box. If it says cornflakes, don’t grumble at finding cornflakes. If it says romance, don’t be offended by the happy ending.

The happy ending is not more nor less a fiction than all the killers brought to justice in murder mysteries, or the appearance of magical creatures and powers in fantasy novels, or technology that does not exist in science fiction. Do readers of thrillers really believe that a lone hero, with brooding good looks and the memories of an appalling childhood, will ride into town and save the day? No. It’s fiction.

But some killers are brought to justice, technology that was science fiction ten years ago is true today, sometimes one person might make a difference, and happy ending do happen.

And if some find that concept dangerous, isn’t that their problem?

Changing the world, one reader at a time

 

 

Around six months ago, I started posting my novel A Baron for Becky on Wattpad, one chapter at a time. ‘Grandmother,’ said the 15-year old, ‘don’t you realise that’s a site for fan fiction about One Direction?’

But I had read of other novelists building a following by posting there, and I figured it was worth a try. I did not know what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect the results reported in the site’s analytics. In the last few weeks, since I posted the final chapter and epilogue, ‘reads’ (Wattpad measures how many people read each part of a ‘work’) have been rising by several hundred a day. As of today, A Baron for Becky has had over 11,000 reads, and nearly half of those have been from parts of the world where romance novels are as dangerous today as they were in England two hundred years ago.

Wattpad readers 19 May

The darker the blue, the higher the concentration of readers: 15% in India, 9% in Philippines, 4.5% in Malaysia, plus readers in Pakistan, Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, Algeria, Namibia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Peru, Suriname, Indonesia, Mexico and other places too small to show unless you zoom in on the map.

I’m writing Dangerous Books, and they’re being read by Girls.

Reading romance novels is an affirmative action

As I’ve said before, genre is not a statement about quality, it’s a way to sort books. So why is it still open season on romance novels. Why is it rare to find a romance novel in a high school syllabus, or the study of the genre at university.

Take a look at the names that the genre attracts: mommy porn, chick lit, bodice ripper—they’re all about gender. It is hard not to conclude that the unthinking dismissal, often by people who have never read a romance novel, is anti-woman. And if that’s the case, reading romance is an affirmative action.

So read romantic fiction proudly. Read the best, by all means. In my sub-genre, read Elizabeth Hoyt, or Grace Burrowes, or Courtenay Milan, or Mary Balogh, or any one of a score of other thoughtful talented writers who research carefully and write brilliantly.

Or read light frothy stuff that gives you a rest from your day job. Again, you have many fine writers to choose from.

But read a romance. By doing so, you are supporting a writer who believes that women should have the same freedom as men to make choices.

 

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Bodice rippers, feminist literature, or just good yarns? (Part 1 of 3)

Story tellers tend to start from one of three main story elements: a character, a setting or situation, or something that went wrong. (How to Plot 101: don’t ask yourself what happened next; ask yourself what went wrong.)

For each of the following pictures, pick a main character, decide the setting, and tell yourself what went wrong. I’ve written below the picture what genre the story should be.

Now remember those main characters, and in a minute you’ll find out why.

What genre is best?

Genre is an interesting thing. It’s a sorting device that allows booksellers and librarians to shelve books into groups, to make it easy for readers to find the kinds of story they like, but in the minds of readers, and perhaps especially critics, it is sometimes scene as saying something about quality.

And no genre attracts more name-calling than the romance genre: trashy books, mummy-porn, bodice rippers, chick-lit. The headline to this blog post is the title of my talk at Featherston Booktown yesterday, and I heard from a number of people beforehand that they believed precisely the opposite. They had not themselves read romance, but they knew it to be poor writing, formulaic, and anti-feminist.

I have read romance. Lots of romance, and particularly historical romance, which is the sub-genre I write in. And I’ve read all sorts of other fiction too. And in every genre—not excluding mainstream and literary fiction—I’ve found books that are well written and researched, and books that are so poorly done I can’t finish them. I’ve also found those gems that stay with me; great books that change or deepen my view about something, so that I return and read them again, revisiting and finding deeper layers in the book and in myself.

There is no best genre. And there’s no worst genre, either.

So why does romance get so much flak?

Let’s define terms. A romance novel has two characteristics. If it doesn’t fit both, it may be an excellent book, but it isn’t a romance. (And remember, genre is just about how to shelve the book.)

  1. the story is about the growing emotional attachment between two people
  2. the story ends with the hope that the two people have a happy future together.

Romantic stories that qualify for the first but not the second include: Titanic, Romeo and Juliet, The Marriage of Mergotta, Gone with the Wind. Not romances.

And I’m using the term feminism to mean the belief that women have the right to the same social, economic, educational and other opportunities as men, and should be as free as men to make choices about those opportunities. By that definition, I’m a feminist. And so, I am about to argue, are romance novels as a genre.

Dangerous books for girls

So why, for more than 200 years, has the romance novel been derided by the establishment? I’ve organised my response under six headings taken from Maya Rodale’s book Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. Her headings, my thoughts—but I highly recommend the book. Her overview of the past 200 years, her survey results, and her thoughts about what it all means make fascinating reading.

So why were and are romance novels Dangerous Books for Girls?

  1. Because women
  2. Because the love match
  3. Because escape
  4. Because the author-ity
  5. Because female orgasms
  6. Because HEA

Let’s talk about what each of those mean.

#1 Because women

A few minutes ago, I got you to pick main characters for four different stories. How many women did you pick? When I did this exercise during my talk, male characters outnumbered female characters eight to three. I used the same painting several times for different genres, and I included the romance genre as one of the options. Twice. So two of those three women were main characters in a romance. (The other was a spy.) In the other genres, males outnumbered females eight to one.

This is pretty typical. Women had 30% of speaking roles (and 12% of lead roles) in recent movies. Books about women don’t tend to win literary awards, either. In her study of the last fifteen years results for six major book length fiction awards, Nicole Griffiths found that only one, the Newbury Medal, consistently had books about girls or women (girls, in this case, the Newbury being for children’s books). Of the other five—so seventy-five prizes in total (Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and Hugo Award), only eight prizes were awarded to books with a woman or girl as the major protagonist. And, by the way, all of those were written by women.

Romances are written by women (about 80% of writers are women), for women (around 90% of readers), about women. Women are central or at least co-equal in almost every plot. They’re not a plot device. Even when the heroine is Too Dumb To Live, the plot still hinges on her choices. Even if the hero is a creep calling out for a restraining order, the plot still hinges on the heroine’s choices.

The book isn’t over till the heroine gets what she wants.

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Continue on to part 2

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Sunday retrospective

time-machineToday’s Sunday retrospective reaches back to the second half of October 2014, when I was writing the last third of Farewell to Kindness. I was reporting progress—and hiccups—as I went. I finished the month with a photo of the printed first draft of Farewell to Kindness and the heading #amediting. A couple of days before that, I posted a list called ‘Editing the book’ — everything I needed to do between finishing the first draft and sending the book for beta reading.

Criminal injustice was the post I wrote when I found out about the sea change in the British criminal justice system, and how this affected my plot. In 1807,  the old system was no longer working and the new system had not been invented.

Our modern view is that one law should apply to all. It doesn’t always work. Money buys better lawyers, for a start. But the basic principle is that we have laws that lay down the crime and the range of punishments, and judges who look at the circumstances and apply penalties without fear or favour.

The pre-19th century situation in England was far, far different.

I also posted on why I changed the name of my heroine in Farewell to Kindness in a blog post with the longest titleI have ever written: Ewww, just ewww: or the cautionary tale of the perils of naming characters in a whole lot of books at once and then starting one without reference to the real world.

I waxed philosophical about romance writing as a genre in a couple of posts that largely picked up what other people were saying:

  • Fear of vulnerability reports on research that suggests fear of vulnerability underpins the common dismissal of the romance genre by readers of other types of fiction
  • Romance novels are feminist novels has excerpts from a much longer article that directly confronts the view that all romance novels are trivial, and turns it on its head.

The first review I published on my website was for the wonderful Lady Beauchamp’s Proposal. Four months later, I was thrilled to find author Amy Rose Bennett as another potential Bluestocking Belle, and we’ve been colleagues and allies ever since.

And I also published a review of Darling Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt. In less than a fortnight, I’m hosting a Belles’ Book Club discussing another of the Maiden Lane series, Scandalous Desires. Elizabeth has agreed to pop in for an hour, so don’t miss it. You can join the event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/929180810491602/

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