A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine on the marketing side of the publishing equation sent me a post from Jezebel.com and thought I might write around it a piece about how editorial content has evolved in the romance genre since the book, "The Road to Forever" by Jeneth Murrey was published by Harlequin in 1983.  Jezebel.com contributor Sadie contends that RTF hero Owen Tudor is the "Worst 80s Hero of All Time," or at least from the 20th C, and lays out her case.

While reading the post, "He Hardly Ever Called Her a Vicious Little B*tch Now..." I thought of an interview I'd done recently with a former Harlequin editor who told me in the 80s, she often was overruled in editorial confabs when she complained that some Harlequin heroes reminded her of the stalkers she was concerned she might meet in real life as a young, single woman in NYC.  She said she'd hear over and over from the team: This is fantasy and readers know the difference.

I agree.  Our negative and positive visceral impressions of books we read have everything to do with our experiences, whether or not we've evaluated them, and whether we've gone through or examined the things that allow us to understand where an author might have been coming from - or why a reader might have enjoyed a novel.  

When we reject out of hand old-school romance as dangerous or misogynistic - or any other label easily applied while living in the comfort of times when feminists give our romance reading their blessed seal of approval - we forget that in the 80s and long before, women wrote and read romance when feminists dissed both.

And definitely to put a fine point on things, those old-school romance readin'-and-scribin' women hadn't yet "found their voices." Many were trying desperately to surf the Second Wave, and - if they even understood they had some nasty fantasies -- hadn't the ways to articulate them; erotic fiction, and heck, even Anais Nin, weren't mainstays in their local libraries.

But Harlequin romances were available.

Now, I recently read an erotic romance that I adored, "Skin Deep  ," by Anna J. Evans, which spoke to some sexy elements I and so many romance readers love.  But I want you to understand that you and I have had years to read erom, know the language of sexuality and seduction and have been taught that it's ok to use them.  I mean, imagine the 50+ romance-reading demo in the 80s trying to articulate their bondage/humiliation fantasies!  

When a contemporary hero a la "Skin Deep" says to a heroine something akin to, "You're my dirty little b*tch, aren't you?" it's ok for us to get hot.  When the hero today who is a dominant kidnaps the heroine-even if he's conflicted -- it's cool for us to feel a nice, dirty thrill.  And when the hero humiliates the heroine in a bondage joint by bending her over and wailing on her pretty ass - with her permission, of course - we know she's the one with the real power, so we're "allowed" that sweet ol' body buzz.  

But remember this, girlfriends:  Today, in the 80s and always, the woman with the fantasy is the woman with the power.

Now, when you read the Jezebel.com post, you may want to go all, "But the hero loved his stepsister!  That's creepy!"  Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn't, and I have my own opinions as a survivor of sexual abuse, and former child protection services worker.  But, again, remember what I said above about our experiences shading how we look at novels - and think about how that could color our feelings about what makes a romance "good."  

It's awfully easy to rip apart a book w/out trying to understand why it might have turned on readers.  And as a fan of all romance, I think it's more interesting to attempt to understand that every author who had the audacity to write a romance when it only was unpopular  - and every reader who bought a book when romance wasn't feminist- or smarty-pants approved  -- deserves our respect, and our gratitude.

What old-school romance did you love and still love?  What old school did your read that mortifies you today?  What are the best/worst things about how editorial content has evolved over the years in romance?



Sherri Kenyon visits Center Stage this week! Click here to dish w/ her bout "Bad Moon Rising!" Check out my exclusive interview with her here...

Message Edited by Michelle_Buonfiglio on 08-14-2009 10:48 AM
by Blogger Michelle_Buonfiglio ‎08-11-2009 10:36 PM - edited ‎08-11-2009 10:37 PM

Sounds like pretty raw stuff, becke. I don't know the novel.  I would wonder why the hn accused him and what part of the plot it was supposed to move forward.  But did folks take on Lamb because she wrote about child abuse in general, brought it out of the closet, as it were?  Or did she hypersexualize it or something? 


I'm glad if this post gave you something to 'think on,' Vanessa.  Funny, when I was younger, I was much more black/white in what i thought was sexist and feminist.  Clearly, since many feminists now give romance the ok, same thing happens for lots of women.  But I totally looked down on romance when I was younger, too.  Oh, except in opera and art songs and books I loved but didn't realize were really quite romantic!

You describe a scene from academe that still goes on, unfortunately, despite how fortunate we are to have a strong romance scholarship movement. 


And your point about shame is a good one. I think there are women who are vocal about their love of romance, yet still are ashamed of it.  The total, "I read romance, but I don't read those romances" folks.  


Food for thought.


Message Edited by Michelle_Buonfiglio on 08-11-2009 10:37 PM
by Moderator becke_davis on ‎08-12-2009 12:03 AM
Several of Charlotte Lamb's books got into things that were then -- and would be still -- controversial. Her writing was very intense and emotional, and she's one of my favorite authors from that period. But there was one book -- and I'm not sure if it was the one I mentioned or another -- that was very difficult for me to read and to accept. The hero had actually served a term in prison after being falsely accused of rape. It was, as I recall, a case of mistaken identity. The whole thing was really good, but really painful to read. I don't count that one among the ones of hers I liked, but others touched on the subject without such a raw edge.
by Blogger Michelle_Buonfiglio on ‎08-12-2009 11:54 AM
Anna DeStefano has a category in which the hero cops to killing his  friend when he and the boy were 18.  He'd pushed the boy, I think, and the kid hit his head.  The hero thought he was being stand up.  His prison experience was what prison is. When he comes back to town he realizes how his trying to be valliant in such a misguided way affected negatively so many others, including the girl he'd loved.  DeStefano handles the whole book beautifully, and it's really an example of how tough subjects can be dealt w/in romance but still have more than a 'hopefull' ending.  It wasn't super easy to read, still I'm so glad I read it.
by Moderator becke_davis on ‎08-12-2009 12:32 PM
That sounds a little like Toni Blake's Letters to a Secret Lover, which is a wonderful book!
by lisadh on ‎02-02-2010 02:44 PM

A little late in finding this thread, but one I find fascinating.  I started reading romances in my later high school years.  I cut my teeth on Jude Deveraux, Johanna Lindsey, Karen Robards, and Judith McNaught.    The Velvet Saga and the James River Trilogy by Jude Deveraux had a big impact (I even named my first-born Travis, from "Lost Lady").  "Loving Julia" by Karen Robards is probably as anti-feminist as you can get, but I find it totally hot.  Maybe because he can't stay away.  I think I like that even though the heroines aren't really fight-for-love kind of girls, the heroes just can't fight the attraction.  They keep coming back to figure it out.  "Whitney, My Love" is still, to me, the best example of a historical romance out there.  I like it mainly because it is just about two people.  There's no plot to overthrow the government; there's no (really) evil family member trying to put them in danger.  It's just two people getting past their pride to fall in love. 


Another thought:

Why is it that (of these authors) only Johanna Lindsey still writes historicals, now?  Why have so many of those authors turned to the modern crime/romance genre?

by Blogger Michelle_Buonfiglio on ‎02-03-2010 11:08 AM

hi, lisadh. So glad you found this and H2H.  your final thought is a terrific one, and i wonder also what that has to do with.  whether it's choice, economics, pressure... hmmm. 


I very much appreciate how you describe the old-school stories as about 'two people,' with no gov 't plots, etc.  that also is my favorite, and when I find one these days, i always am so excited by the fact that it's simply a relational story, a love story.  I think may readers feel as you do about the authors you mention, and Whitney.  I know many women who began reading romances when you did and who still talk about how much and why they enjoy those right along side of how much they do the same w/ today's romance. 


I hope you'll visit us often and offer your thoughts. I've enjoyed readign them.


Since 1997, you’ve been coming to BarnesandNoble.com to discuss everything from Stephen King to writing to Harry Potter. You’ve made our site more than a place to discover your next book: you’ve made it a community. But like all things internet, BN.com is growing and changing. We've said goodbye to our community message boards—but that doesn’t mean we won’t still be a place for adventurous readers to connect and discover.

Now, you can explore the most exciting new titles (and remember the classics) at the Barnes & Noble Book Blog. Check out conversations with authors like Jeff VanderMeer and Gary Shteyngart at the B&N Review, and browse write-ups of the best in literary fiction. Come to our Facebook page to weigh in on what it means to be a book nerd. Browse digital deals on the NOOK blog, tweet about books with us,or self-publish your latest novella with NOOK Press. And for those of you looking for support for your NOOK, the NOOK Support Forums will still be here.

We will continue to provide you with books that make you turn pages well past midnight, discover new worlds, and reunite with old friends. And we hope that you’ll continue to tell us how you’re doing, what you’re reading, and what books mean to you.