The trouble with romance novels
By Mo Conlan
Shatter. Lave. Release. Sheath. Member. Words I hope never again to read in the same sentence – not in the same paragraph.
These words are sprinkled liberally throughout many romance novels.
I don’t mind a little steam in a book. Really good writers -- and many romance writers are really good -- get the mix right.
I object, though, when a story veers off into the bedroom and stays too long.
I want to know the characters’ inner thoughts and motivations. I do not want to know their actual innards.
I especially enjoy historical romances in which the author sets the story among the elite – The Ton -- in early 1800s English ballrooms, drawing rooms and carriages. Some of these are quite steamy, though. It is surprising what The Ton can get up to in a carriage.
One problem with writing and reading a sex scene is a dearth of language. The same phrases and words recur – such as the cringe-worthy “lave” -- rarely used except in a romance novel. Whether the writer uses anatomically correct terms or euphemisms, there are only so many.
Of course, romance novels are fantasies. The hero is handsome, well-born and a fantastic lover. I mean fantastic – knowing all there is about how to please a lady in bed. Some authors describe this expertise inch by inch. TMI.
The lady is a virgin. Despite this, during her first sexual encounter, this formerly chaste young woman experiences paroxysms of pleasure – usually multiple orgasms. Hmmm.
Despite constraints of the genre, the best romance writers are masters of character. Their heroines are opinionated, strong-willed, intelligent. They run counter to “type” among their peers. They aren’t going make it too easy for the hero to get them into bed or to the altar.
To get a break from the wooing and bedding, a romance story has another plot running alongside the romance – often a mystery or crime-solving adventure. I like these adventures and want to shout, if the hero and heroine dally too long, “Get back to the story!”
Since I am a writer as well as a reader, I began to think more deeply about why I object to overly detailed sex scenes.
They become boring and redundant. They slow down the action. They turn the reader into a voyeur.
As a writer, I object to creating likable, credible characters and then spying on them making love. It seems disrespectful.
I am not a prude. There are ways to tell a romantic, sexy story without going too far. The novelist Janet Evanovich – who began her career as a romance writer – knows how to do it. Mostly, though wit and humor. Her Stephanie Plum series is a hybrid of romance and crime fiction.
Instead of describing every action in a sex scene, she tells about reactions, playfulness, attraction.
She doesn’t invade Stephanie Plum’s privacy to an embarrassing degree.
Here are a few romance writers I have been reading – or listening to on audio books.
• One reason I read (or listen) to romance novels (I am mostly a mystery fan) is the fine writing of Amanda Quick. (Also writing under the names Jayne Ann Krentz and Jayne Castle.) She writes with such intelligence and invention. Her characters are deeply imagined. She writes graphic sex scenes, but doesn’t allow them to ruin the pace of the story. I like her Arcane Society novels, about characters with paranormal talents.
• Julia Quinn is another writer whose stories are inventive and intelligent. She knows how to turn the romance formula inside out and to play with it. In “Mr. Cavendish, I Presume,” Amelia Willoughby gains backbone and tutors a too-slow suitor.
• Stephanie Laurens writes the steamiest of the romance stories I’ve read. Her “All About Love” reads nearly like an old-fashioned “Perils of Pauline” novel. The hero has to continuously rescue the heroine. Despite multiple attempts on her life, she is always ready for sex. Too much sex. Too unbelievable.
• Liz Curtis Higgs writes historical romances with a Christian theme. I didn’t know this when I picked up “Mine is the Night.” In this story, set in England after the Jacobite rebellion (Bonny Prince Charley), characters pray rather than seduce, find the right mates and don’t even think about sex before the vows. Although I don’t usually read Christian-theme novels, I found her characters and story quite refreshing.
These quibbles will not likely change the temperature or frequency of sex scenes in romance novels. These writers are best-sellers with solid audiences. I only ask, as a writer and reader, can you best-selling authors come up with something fresher than: Shatter, lave, release, sheath, member.
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