Wednesday, January 09, 2013

My Romance Issue

Tonight, children's choir starts up again. I guess that means I need to come up with a lesson plan. For the first time back after the holidays, I probably need to schedule in "sharing time" to talk about what we got for Christmas, how we played in the snow and what we did during the holidays. It's going to happen anyway, so I may as well plan for it. That may help avoid seventeen instances of "Miss Shanna! Miss Shanna! Guess what! It snowed on Christmas!" Maybe I should introduce the concept of the Talking Stick for a circle time. Should I use the foam sword or the mini lightsaber?

Now, to follow up on yesterday's post. I was talking about some of the books I read over the holidays. I also re-read Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis, and when I ran out of books to read while at my parents' house, I dug into my mom's romance stash. That was when I had a bit of a revelation.

I like romance in a book. I love the subtle romances developing in the background in Blackout/All Clear (and even wish they were a little more developed), and those endings gave me that swoony sigh feeling. Swept Off Her Feet had me frantically turning pages, longing to be in the heroine's shoes, contemplating Scottish dancing, and sighing at the end. The impact of love on the life of the hero of Dodger gave me hope for humanity and belief in the power of love. One of the things I liked most about Captain Vorpatril's Alliance was the fact that it was essentially a Regency romance in a futuristic space setting, and watching that marriage of convenience relationship develop practically had me cutting little hearts out of construction paper. And yet I hated the romance novels. To be fair, the ones I read were out of my mom's "if you want to read any of these, take them now because I'm going to donate them to the library sale" stash, but the things I disliked about them (other than the bad case of "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means" in one of them that should lose a copyeditor her job) were things you'll generally find even in the better novels.

So, if I like romance so much, why don't I like romance novels? I've had this conversation a few times with my agent as we've tried to figure out what to do with my career. I started out in romance. The romantic elements of my fantasy books seem to be what most of the readers I hear from get most excited about, and most of the criticism I hear from people is that there's not enough romance, that the romance isn't developed enough, or that there's no sex in the romance, to which I have to restrain my snarky response of "You do know these aren't romance novels, don't you?" I've had fantasy novels rejected by fantasy publishers on the grounds that they're "too romancey," with suggestions that I try a romance publisher. You'd think romance would be a perfect fit for me, and it's been hard for me to explain why it isn't.

I think, after comparing and contrasting these romantic non-romances with romances, that the romance genre -- the books shelved as "romance" and published by romance publishers or by romance imprints -- has too rigid a formula for what a romance story should entail, this formula is actually growing stricter, with no wiggle room, and that formula has moved away from the things I enjoy in a love story. I'm okay with the basic "girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl wins boy in the end" formula, but they've added so much to it. For instance, there has to be something keeping the couple apart, or you've got no story, but it's reached a point where that something has to be between the two of them. It can't be something outside them, and it has to be a conflict between the two of them, not an inner conflict within one or both that gives them trouble with relationships, in general. The result is a lot of bickering and fighting until they give in and start with the other "F" that's essential to a romance novel today. I'd rather read about people who belong together but who have to struggle against a world that's trying to keep them apart or who have to work on themselves before they can find real intimacy with another person.

Another thing that seems to have spiraled out of control is the requirement for sexual tension. That was one of the reasons I gave up writing for Harlequin. I'd get notes from an editor saying I needed to add certain things to the hero's reaction to seeing the heroine for the first time, and my response would be, "What is he, twelve?" There's been some talk lately on some of the romance forums about the "rape culture" in romance novels, mostly in terms of the "slut shaming" that goes on (the virginal heroine is good, but the bitchy rival is bad because she's slept with men), but my view is that the real "rape culture" going on in romances means we need some "rapist shaming." The way the heroes of these books view women gives me the creeps, but it's meant to be hot and to show how much they desire the woman.

For instance, in one of the books I read, there's a man who's had to rush off to deal with a family crisis, but along the way there's an accident, he's hurt and stranded and takes shelter from a storm in the nearest available place. That's the same place a woman has gone after she's escaped a harrowing situation. This injured man with a family crisis he still hasn't managed to deal with sees this terrified, soaking wet, dirty, somewhat injured woman, and what does he think? Essentially, it's "Boobies! I must touch them!" When she shies away from his attempted grope, it actually goes through his mind that it would be wrong to rape her, but she owes him at least a kiss, so he tackles her, pins her to the ground and sticks his tongue down her throat. I'm thinking that at any moment the real hero will show up and rescue her from this jerk, but it turns out that he's the hero, and this is all just to show just how attracted he is to her. There's never an apology or remorse for this behavior. In another book, the heroine despises the hero, but her entire attitude toward him changes when he sticks his hand up her skirt, over her (initial) protests. Basically, the formula has been expanded to "Girl meets boy and both fall instantly in lust and immediately start imagining each other naked. Girl and boy hate each other but are still drawn together by the lust. After they have sex, they love each other, but the reason they hated each other will come up one more time, nearly driving them apart. But sex conquers all, and they get married and have lots of babies." It would be nearly impossible to sell a novel to a romance publisher or imprint that varies too far from this formula -- if they actually like each other, if their physical attraction develops gradually, if they don't have sex, if they don't have sex until they're really in love.

It's not that I'm opposed to sex in books. I just want there to be more to it than that, and the emphasis on sex in romance has often led to sex being used as a shortcut, kind of like the way today's romantic movies show the couple falling in love by showing them writhing in the sheets, which ends up being less sexy than the highly charged conversations that were in Production Code era films. If the sex is hot enough, you don't have to worry about developing anything else in the relationship. Sex is also a fairly individual taste -- one person's "Oh!" is another person's "Ew!" I have a pretty vivid imagination, and if it's left up to me, I can imagine it in a way that works for me. When it's so very graphic and in vivid detail, the odds increase of coming across something that's an "Ew!" for me that ruins the scene or even the entire relationship.

To some extent, all those other books I read had the benefit of big main plots, so that there was plenty of conflict even if the romance was low on conflict. You can get away with a couple that likes each other and gradually falls in love without a lot of conflict or angst if there's a lot of other stuff going on along the way to keep them apart. But the main plot for Swept Off Her Feet could easily have been a category romance novel -- Our Heroine is an antiques appraiser with a rosily romantic view of the past. She loves antiques not because of their value or even their craftsmanship, but because of the stories she can imagine behind them. Our Hero is a practical businessman whose father has just inherited a Scottish castle. He sees the place as a money pit and has no interest in being the heir to such a thing. He thinks his parents would be better off if they just sold the place. She's come to the castle to appraise all the stuff stashed away in attics to see if they can come up with enough money to help them save the castle and keep it in the family. Instant clash with opposing goals. Only it doesn't play out at all like a category romance. They do have some discussions, but they don't really bicker. He doesn't try to get in her way. He listens to her, she listens to him. Neither of them have romance on their mind, at least not initially, so there's no worry about keeping them apart. The book is mostly about the part of a relationship that happens between initial meeting and the decision to pursue a romance, and that really captures that heady time of meeting and figuring out someone while figuring out yourself and thinking about where that other person might fit in. There's very little overt "sexual tension" the way it's written in romance novels, but I got the same result in reading it because the emotional tension was strong enough to create that kind of breathless subtext. I generally believe that if you're doing it right, the emotional tension will create the sense of sexual tension. You don't have to layer it on with a shovel.

And that would be my romance problem. I like romances, but I don't think I could write them in a way that would allow them to be shelved as romance novels and still like them. I'd be happy writing things that fit the basic formula, but I don't think I could write something that falls within the current genre guidelines. This gives me some possible issues, such as that I no longer actually meet the membership requirements for Romance Writers of America, since they've clarified them to specify that a romance must be something published as romance and considered by the publisher to be romance. Writing boy meets girl/boy wins girl stories doesn't count unless you add the other stuff.

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