This morning, I read an interesting article on romance novels and feminism. It’s a good piece, with lots of insights into the genre and the market, and it got me thinking about how much romance novels (and erotic novels) have changed just in the time I’ve been alive. I started reading romance novels with my grandmother; she had huge bags of them that she traded with friends, or that my grandfather picked up at garage sales.
Then, when I was maybe in middle school, I stopped and started reading science fiction and fantasy. Why? Partly because those were worlds and characters that I could identify with more closely. The transition wasn’t a conscious choice, so much as it was a movement toward something that held more interest for me. When I found women protagonists (although I didn’t know the word then–I would have used “heroes”), they did cool things, they didn’t wait around for someone else to save them from society’s constraints, they didn’t give up their career or their dreams, and they weren’t afraid of their desires (carnal or otherwise).
(I want to stop for a second and give my usual caveat: There’s nothing wrong with traditional romance, in my opinion. Read what you want. Write what you want. Just because something isn’t for me doesn’t mean I’m against it in principle. I am an advocate for reading and writing, in whatever form it takes, and whatever pleasure it brings you).
When I started writing erotica in 2001, I hadn’t read much in the genre. Mostly because what I had read was very “take back our bodies” with talk of our precious yoni flowers and our spiritual awakenings and our hatred of men — and while I respected those things and the work women had done to get us to that point, I was ready to move into something more carnal, something that really took women’s bodies back. When writing erotica, I also didn’t think about romance. My characters were living, breathing lust machines. They didn’t want love; they wanted hot sex and screaming orgasms and new experiences. I pushed my characters beyond the issues that I saw in erotica. There were no limits to what my characters wanted and would go after. I understood, even then, that I was balking against genre
The first time someone asked me to write a romance novella, I was like, “Um, no. Ew.” It didn’t occur to me at the time that I could break the romance genre apart the same way I had with erotica. In fact, my first published romantic novella is so traditionally sweet that I even called it “Sweet Season. ” My second romantic novella moved into new directions — “Reversible Cowgirls” was full of hot girl-on-girl romance. And my most recent, “Safe Haven,” is probably somewhere between the two.
I learn with every book I write, and what I was learning about romance was the same thing I had already learned about the other genres: Break the fucking boundaries.
When Harper Collins commissioned me to write Leather Bound, an erotic romance novel, it was right around the 50 Shades phenomenon. The quality of writing aside, the book was such a throwback to the old days that I found it difficult to stomach. The main character knows nothing about her own desire, nor about sex, nor about how to use the internet. She’s passive (which is not the same as submissive). She waiting for a man to fullfil her. On and on and on.
So when I sat down to write Leather Bound, I knew there were a few things that I absolutely refused to do:
- I would not make my main character completely unaware or ashamed of her own sexuality. From the beginning of the book, Janine is bisexual, kinky, in a potentially open relationship, and full of lust. While she has a sexual journey along the way, it isn’t the traditional “I don’t know anything and now a man has taught me everything” journey. She learns through her own process, which includes her friends and her sexual partners.
- I would not make my main character passive or without a life of her own. Janine co-owns a bookstore with her best friend and she has a group of people who love her (despite the fact that she’s an introvert — perhaps another no-no in romance). She loves her job and her friends, and isn’t about to give them up. In fact, the very idea never even comes up. She goes after what she wants — which sometimes gets her in trouble — but never stops her.
- I would not make my main character unable to learn on her own. There’s a mystery in the book, and part of Janine’s job at the bookstore is research. She uses the internet regularly, turns to friends when she can’t find the answer, and isn’t daunted by new knowledge.
- I would not make the main conflict between my characters be an unwillingness or inability to communicate or a misconception that never gets cleared up. In so many romance novels, the conflict hinges on a misunderstanding, and because no one talks about it (they typically just run away to cry in a heap somewhere), it ends up being a conflict that drives the whole novel. My characters talk about things. They ask questions about things they don’t understand. Thus, (I hope) the conflict becomes richer and deeper.
- I would make my characters pass the Bechdel test. Janine and Lily (her co-owner at the book store) talk about a number of things beyond romance (I say romance and not ‘men’ because Lily is a lesbian, so she hardly ever talks about men that way).
- I would not make getting married or even getting the perfect man the ultimate goal of the book. Yes, Leather Bound has a happy ending. But it’s not a traditional ending at all. That’s all I can tell you, however; you’ll just have to trust me on the rest.
- I would not sacrifice a great story, hot sex, interesting characters or real romance to make a point about feminism or my personal beliefs. Sometimes an author goes too far in the “make things right category,” and I feel like I’m being hit over the head with a belief system or a point about society and gender. That isn’t why I read. I want nuances, I want story, and I want to make up my own mind about things. So I purposefully let story and characters be the driving forces in the novel, above and beyond all else.
Leather Bound is a risk; there is the potential that it will be one of those novels that people love to hate. Traditional romance readers will potentially despise it for its lack of traditional elements. They might be turned off by the hot sex and the character’s strong libido, bisexuality and kinkiness. Modern romance readers might think it hasn’t gone far enough, that it doesn’t make a strong enough point about gender and sexuality and feminism.
But I think it’s a beautiful story, and one I’m very proud to have written. And I believe that readers who want strong, interesting, sexual characters doing interesting, sexy things will see themselves in its pages, and get to live vicariously in a world where romance and kink and sex and submission and leather and lust and books and real characters are all important and strong and true.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
I think bi sex in bookstores is the key to peace in our time. I’m looking forward to it. But as a non-reader of romances (except as research), I’m not sure I’m your target demographic.
I hate those stories where the heroine is, “OMG I have a vagina!” 50 Shades is a definite offender, but there are many more. Also, the ridiculous misunderstanding is awful, and makes me think of a terrible rom-com. Leather Bound sounds like an oasis for those sick of the traditional fare.
I’m so much easier on myself. My list of things to not let myself do is just
1. I will not make the man (or even the woman, but especially the man) be a billionaire.
I feel a blog post coming on, lol.
Thanks, Kathleen! I was going to ask what additional issues other writers are wrestling with, because I’m sure I’ve forgotten some.
Ha. I forgot that one, Shar 🙂
I wish you every success, because it sounds as if you’ve thought about all my traditional objections. (And it’s it pathetic how very low the Bechdel bar is set?)