I am going to take a stand against the eye rolling and sniggering and furtive reading, and point out some wonderful things about romance novels.
As with anything, there is a standard, and some of the (in my humble opinion) lower standard romance novels over the years have probably contributed to the bad press the whole genre gets. Actually – in the ones I read ‘bodice ripper’ would be a very misleading title although if one or two of the undergarments are damaged along the way to a happy ending even better.
I’ll get the negatives out of the way without naming names; this isn’t meant to offend anyone. But I have read novels by a very prolific writer or two who have got their market, but it’s not me. These have featured the hero horse whipping then raping the heroine – before inevitably softening towards her (how kind!), taming the shrew along the way. They have an excess of posturing and thrusting rods into tight uncharted territories. The dialogue is stiff and stilted (much as I would write were I to try dialogue – I can’t manage it to save my life) and the characters are like little carbon cut out dolls. The heroine is aloof, feisty or weak, and the hero is dark, brooding, cruel and misogynist. In the end she sees him for the hero he truly is, and he masters her will - boring. You usually skip past the character building nonsense and look forward to the sex scenes - but they end up disappointing anyway.
The reason for this is that what makes a great romance novel and indeed a great sex scene is the same thing that makes great sex. It isn’t the awful close up shot of genitals going at it on a tacky porn set. No one is truly sexually fulfilled by that alone unless they are missing the point a bit. What makes great sex can still be found in movies and books though - it is sexual tension. It is the spark that flies between people that makes the air feel electric around them, that makes them taunt each other and do stupid things and come back for more. When a sex scene is repetitive and predictable with wooden protagonists taking part you may get a momentary vicarious raising of the blood pressure but it isn’t because of the value of the thing – it is because of what it taps into within yourself. And it leaves you hungry for the real thing.
So that is what I avoid – how about what works!
Firstly, a historical setting is essential. What is romantic about today, text-sex, and arguments over Facebook and email; paying car tax and doing the weekly shop. No thank you, for my escapism I would like something better please. Any time in history is fine I am sure but for me nothing beats the 18th and early 19th centuries. A well written historical romance novel is no different from another well written historical novel – it just doesn’t stop when the bedroom door closes. And why should it? Why shouldn’t novels that include sex be every bit as good as critically acclaimed novels the likes of Philippa Gregory. As it happens her ‘Wideacre’ is one of the best books I have ever read and there is some kinky stuff in that, I assure you. ‘Wideacre’ is not a romance novel but it has sex in it – so here we wonder is it love we should be embarrassed about reading or is it sex? People make films out of books like hers, with A-list actresses and lavish sets. Writing well about history can open up a whole world for you which you will be loath to leave. And a romance writer is every bit as capable of doing that as any other. Eloisa James, of my favourite authors, has a Ph.D. and is a Professor of Shakespeare. She is a very intelligent woman and a fantastic writer. One of the things that attract me so much to her books is that although they are romance novels in every sense – they are very much about relationships between women. And in some of her series’ it is those relationships that leave me wondering what on earth is going to happen next.
You need characters that have depth, who are flawed and still something to aspire to. You need real passion, love and devotion. Beautiful descriptions and details are gobbled up. Minor characters who fill the story out then leave you wanting to know what happens to them as well (next book please!)
Complexity of human nature and the struggles of humanity to date can all be incorporated. Let’s remember that although people have changed drastically over time it is short sighted to think they were not capable of feeling exactly the same as we do now. Every beggar wasn’t tragic, every King wasn’t mad, every Duchess wasn’t shallow. People loved and felt very much the same as we do but operated under a totally different society norm, which affected their choices. A good historical romance will remember that, and not make rows of ladies and gentleman who faint, rebel, pilfer and scheme without forcing it to all make sense. I have done all the things mentioned above in my lifetime but I did them because life demanded it of me at that time, not because I was following a script.A good romance novel will make you tap your toe and strain to hear the tunes being played by fiddlers in a field or orchestras in a ballroom. It will compel you to research more about the time period, and the lives of individuals in it, because it so perfectly highlights a world you somehow remember in your bones but can’t quite pin down.
Love is something common to us all; even those who are not blessed with it can feel its power. Romantic love is wonderful and enormously powerful when it is done well, and although romance by no means owns love, it is one of loves facets that are easy to enjoy in this way. Reading a book just about love of parent, child, or sibling wouldn’t be quite so engrossing in the sense of escapism – valuable, certainly, but not necessarily what you dream about late at night. Romantic love can feel like a soaring tempo carrying you somewhere intensely attractive, where you are your own ideal, and you are loved by your ideal mate in return.
Friction is necessary of course; no romance novel would be complete without some conflict thrown in to mix it up a bit. And this is best done individually, to the specific characters and plots, rather than some sort of system of ticking boxes, “Must have tears or bitterness on every third page!” However listen to a nicely depressing angsty song and you do understand that an element of pain and strife is required to make your heart ache just the right amount.
Drama is good. Humour is essential. Show me a hero who is incapable of cracking a smile while tugging off your chemise and I will show you a hero no one wants. I like to imagine my heroes are the sort of men whose voices entrance me in music today. Who sets your pulse racing, who makes you wish you could have a long coffee date, resounding argument and shared hysterics? Your partner if you have one, I hope, for your sake but most people have someone, real or fiction, who is an example of a person they could stand getting to know some more. A romance hero or heroine has to have that quality of making you feel you wish you could spend time with them, in one way or another!
When my daily life gets a bit too much – which happens on a daily basis – I love nothing more than literally escaping into another world where everything is utterly different from mine. It isn’t that I don’t love my life, but I do feel the need to leech on to other lives to supplement mine on a regular basis. But then who hasn’t – that is after all what entertainment is based on, from ancient plays to blockbuster movies. And thank god for it too, if we only had ourselves to think about and aspire to we would be very dull indeed. Imagine emulating yourself, it’s a bit like trying to wrap your head around M.C. Escher and feel no pain whatsoever. I like reading about sparkling characters that embody ideals and yet still retain flaws and humour.
And you know there are a lot of men out there who read romance novels too. It is clearly a market dominated by women but I assure you that at some point you will sit on a train across from a man listening to a passionate reconciliation on his MP3. Dare I use the words ‘double standard’? While I am far from saying a romance novel is the equivalent of porn – it most certainly is not – it is a vicarious pleasure aimed at women. You can not go to any newsagents or corner shop without seeing half naked women naughtily covering the nipples of their unnaturally large breasts while bent over the bonnet of a car. And men are by no means embarrassed by “reading” these magazines and debating which former Big Brother contestant would be the best shag. What a shame then that reading about enduring and passionate love is so constantly open to derision and ridicule. It has nothing to do with silly women reading silly things; it is enjoying story telling for only one of its many purposes – entertainment. No one is harmed by it and you can indeed learn from it. I think more men should give them a try, who knows it might just give them an elusive peek into their lover’s heart (or at least perhaps a slightly more useful peek than they would receive from reading the Daily Sport).
A common shot aimed at the romance industry is that it sets unrealistic expectations in our real relationships. Women want the passion, love, tension and devotion that they read about to be a reality in their life. There is merit in this criticism. It is possible to get so caught up in another world that you feel bereft when you crash back into your own again. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Rather instead look at your romance novel as a reminder of why you are with the one you love, and guide towards what to work towards. Lovers in yesteryear may have had to fight against arranged marriages and highwaymen, lovers today must fight against the grinding modern world. Remember that after the last page, your hero and heroine went on to live happy lives and were productive members of society, no reason you can’t do the same.
Being an admirer of a good historical romping romance novel does not make me less intelligent or intellectual. It is a pleasure, like any other pleasure. I also can’t get enough of Star Trek so I must be a perverted, silly dork. Ah well I don’t think my husband minds my inadequacies so I wont worry too much just yet.
However if you catch me searching for an invisible bell pull to summon my butler so that he can escort an irritating suitor out of my townhouse, worry and contact someone in a position to care.