Re-reading Katherine Sutcliffe's post to me, and talking with another reader about a duo of books by medieval author Mary Gillgannon, I started to think about a topic we haven't discussed here in quite a while - HEA (happily-ever-after) endings. When I surveyed readers more than a year ago on this subject, the response was nearly unanimous - readers require an HEA ending in their romances. Certainly this reader does. But is that still the case?
Here, in a nutshell, is what Katherine had to say, ". . . in Devotion, a number of people were baffled by the ending being left open. After 20 years of happily ever afters, must they be hit over the head with the obvious? The duke told his grandmother to go to hell: he gave up all his wealth to follow the heroine. How more blatantly obvious can you get?" How do you answer that question?
Personally, while I appreciate subtlety in romance, I need to be hit over the head with the fact that the hero and heroine are going to be together forever. I know I sound silly, but one quibble I have with some historical romances is that the hero is much older than the heroine. I worry that that wonderful woman is going to be left a widow for years after her hero dies. Imagine how I would feel when I read a book and I'm not sure that they even get together after hundreds of pages of obstacles and tumult? I mean, if I didn't know that Bonnie and Damien lived together forever after she nearly starves to death in poverty while carrying his baby, I would not (to paraphrase Dorothy Parker) have tossed Sutcliffe's A Fire in the Heart aside lightly. I would have thrown it with great force! Thank goodness Sutcliffe provided the requisite HEA end.
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This topic was reinforced after I discovered that author Mary Gillgannon has a new book coming out right about now. I found a duo she had written in the past at a bookstore and noticed while skimming one, that the hero is apparently grieving for his dead wife. Imagine my surprise in learning from a fellow reader that one of the two books in that duo is the romance between that hero and the now-dead heroine; the sequel apparently is the story of the hero's romance with his second wife.
Well, hearing that decided the issue for me. I certainly couldn't buy this duo, not if my fantasy of the HEA ending remained intact. But I wonder how the rest of you feel about this, whether or not you've read the duo in question. My fellow reader, btw, informed me she would no longer buy romances by Gillgannon because her fantasy of the HEA ending had been destroyed.
Certainly, there are readers for whom this is less than crucial. Bertrice Small's Skye O'Malley series, for one, goes on for several books and, I believe, seven or so husbands.
Where do you stand on the HEA issue? The same as last year (and the same as me)? Or do you have a more tempered stand on the issue. Either way, I'd like to hear from you. I think this is an important topic because I doubt I could read a romance if I didn't know there would be an HEA ending waiting for me. Please e-mail me here with your comments on this subject.
You Would Not Believe!
When I wrote about the issue of, and there is no way to put this delicately, swallowing, I received a great deal of input, especially in conjunction with the love scene parody I wrote in the same column. Readers and some of my fellow reviewers felt that the swallowing discussion was more hard-core than the parody.
What surprised me were the subject headings of some of the posts I received, including The Big Gulp and No Gulping Zone. Beyond some of the more lurid headlines, I did receive quite a few interesting comments on this issue, including comments by authors Lisa Kleypas and Marsha Canham.
Here's what Marsha had to say, "I just read the comments you wrote about 'swallowing' and had to mention a book I was sent a few years back by an editor wanting me to give it a quote. About 25 pages into the book, where the hero and heroine are about to embark on their first date, (it was a contemporary) he turns to her in the car and asks that all time classy question we would all like to hear on a first date: 'Do you swallow?' Needless to say, I did not give it an endorsement of any kind, though I am by far and away, in no sense whatsoever, a prude.
"I just thought it ranked right up there with Bertrice Small's having grapes stuffed up her heroine's 'portal to paradise' (someone else's clever phrase, not Bertrice's) and the hero 'erotically' sucking them out. I was prompted to squirm around and wonder. . . what if he missed one?
"How erotic would it be having to dig around to get it out?"
Marsha, I'm squirming around just pondering that possibility!
"Regarding the swallowing issue -- it is definitely male porn territory, and don't believe anyone who claims otherwise. For some reason men feel a great deal of acceptance and approval when their partner swallows. I believe the pleasure a woman experiences from this act is the satisfaction of doing something nice for her lover, which is fine, but I don't buy the descriptions of female ecstasy from swallowing. I'm sure there's plenty of room for authors who want to push the envelope in sexual matters, but there are plenty of female fantasies to explore, which is the whole point of a romance novel. Moreover, I'm sick and tired of all these experienced virgins I've been reading. I thought the fun part of a first love scene was the sense of discovery and innocent wonder. Why have a virgin behave like a seasoned courtesan? And how and when did she learn all this stuff?"
Reader Kathleen tended to agree with Lisa's comments, both about swallowing (but not completely), and tangentially, about virgins. She wrote, "I personally think swallowing, unasked, is a male fantasy. I cannot imagine a young virginal woman swallowing; I can't imagine a virginal young woman really knowing there's anything to swallow! Lord knows it's nothing that ever occurred to me in my innocent youth, and I used to say I knew everything about sex but what it was like.
"Having said all that, if in the context of the relationship the hero said it would make him feel loved and desired if she . . . and then, as an act of love and desire, she did -- I might actually find that moving. To give that kind of pleasure can be tremendously erotic -- it's not the act itself that arouses but the response to the act.
"Which brings me back to: It's a male fantasy. All I can think, after reading your column, is how does a virgin know about male fantasies?"
I found reader Kerry's take on the subject humorous; perhaps you will to:
"I think that swallowing is absolutely a male fantasy! While I really like oral sex scenes in books, I have to stop myself from thinking about the last time someone had a bath! Ugh, can you imagine!? I also have a bit of a problem with "first timers" and oral sex -- somehow it just seems to me to be something that happens in an established relationship - but I suppose it is a way to ease his turgid, throbbing shaft into her warm and wet, and tight, honeypot?!?!"
Perhaps reader Jeanne came right to the point for many readers when she wrote, "Swallowing? Eeewwwwww. I do welcome oral sex in romance; I think a h/h can perform this in a worshipful way that takes their relationship to new levels of intimacy. But I'm grateful to those authors who start their couples out with freshly washed parts, and who keep the purple prose to a minimum (no "chalice of flesh" references please!). The less I'm reminded about earthy odors or body fluids the better. Because let's face it, in my mind, that heroine in that novel is me! (I think that's what author Alexis Harrington had in mind in column #15 when she referred to a "stalwart hero" who performed oral sex in the morning after a night of passion without any bathing inbetween.)
I can always count on reader Katarina, with her non-American/non-Puritanical viewpoints, to lend a different viewpoint. She did not disappoint! ". . . the act as such doesn't bother me at all, and can be described as utterly loving and giving (eh, receiving). The heroine is in charge, doling out pleasure, enjoying watching his ecstasy. Also, it can be the sign of complete acceptance of the hero, embracing all sides of him.
"On the other hand, the situation must be plausible. I don't expect an oral newbie to. . . guzzle, or even perform it to perfection without some instruction. (Practice makes perfect?) And uncircumcised men, given the poor hygiene in historicals. . . I'm not so sure I want to see that - unless in conjunction with a bath! (fx: gagging sounds) (Actually, fellatio is hardly mentioned as a sin in medieval times, according to my sources - probably because there were things even the hardened ladies of the time wouldn't put up with.)"
Finally, I can always count on my Prodigy pals to inject a certain element of earthy reality into such discussions. Reader Tiffany wrote and asked me, "I do not wanna be gross here. . . but, really. What is the author supposed to do? Have her spit it out all over the hero??? I would definitely have a problem with that scenario." (These same pals, btw, were most interested to know which Susan Johnson book I skimmed that included a love scene involving a string of jewels.)
Reader Andrea, who is a fan of Jane Feather, sent me a snippet from Smuggler's Lady which tastefully relates a love scene with an oral component. While I think Feather writes a bit flowery, I agree with Andrea on this one:
"I am come to make love to you tonight," she informed him, pushing him flat as she moved her body over his. "You must lie still and let me pleasure you as you have so often done for me." "Most willingly," he whispered, closing his eyes as she flicked his nipples with her eyelashes, her breath whispering over his skin. Her tongue, with swift little darts, grazed his skin, bringing every nerve ending to life. He was driven to the edge of torment by the delicacy of touches that appeared not to be corporeal, just a whisper of breath, a silky brush of hair or eyelash, the stroke of a tongue. All the while, her own body, glowing in the candlelight, moved sinuously across and over him, available for his eyes and hands to roam wherever they wished. M-----'s own pleasure tonight was derived solely from D----'s so that when she offered herself to his touch, it was for her lover's gratification, and the arousal she felt was purely secondary although nonetheless powerful for that. With lips and fingers, she brought him to the brink of ecstasy until, with and an almost defeated groan his hands locked in the auburn cascade on his belly and tugged her head up. " Enough" he said hoarsely. "We will share the end game."
Andrea added, and I agree fully, "Not a single mention of swallowing. Something that has to be distinctly unromantic. I don't know why a writer would include it! I feel that if a writer's wants to include a scene that leans well away from romantic and well toward coarse, it ought to be left to secondary characters and unsavory ones at that."
Speaking of. . .
Speaking of the parody of the love scene I wrote for issue #25, I've received one additional parody to go along with mine. I think it's hilarious and I hope you'll link to the parody page, then start working on your own parody.
If You Could. . . :
If I could talk with publishers about what I want to see and don't want to see in romances, obviously one of the things I would want to see is HEA endings. But what are some other things I wish publishers would listen to me about?
My wish list would look something like this:
I wish publishers would spend money promoting mid-list authors
I wish publishers would list related books in a prominent place on the cover or end page, even if those related books were published by a different company (well, this is a wish list!)
I wish publishers would do a better job editing books
I wish there were no more clinch covers
I wish publishers would stop raising the prices on books. Paying $7.00 for a paperback is really pushing it!
I wish publishers would work harder to dispel the stereotypes of romance readers and authors
I wish publishers were not bandwagon types like movie studios and television networks. Just because a particular story-line worked when written by one author, do we have to endure years worth of the same story-line, often written less effectively?
Apparently there are many things publishers could and/or should do to make us readers happier than we are, and many of them piggy-back on my list. I recently read a dead-on review by colleague Cathy Sova decrying all the baby books. I've heard that from more readers than any other trend in publishing. Like most big business, publishers have glommed onto something that worked, and now it's being worked to death.
Readers are frustrated as well by editing problems in romances. There are too many errors copy editors should be catching, in terms of spelling, grammar, and that old bugaboo, accuracy. But not just copy editing - story editing as well. Do some of the books you read seem padded? As though a manuscript was bought and not edited at all?
We are frustrated not only by too many baby books (for example), but by the fact that by publishing another baby book, a book that took a chance in terms of setting or style wasn't published. There are authors out there who prove that an historical doesn't have to be set in the regency period or the British Isles, but they are few and far between.
Not only are many readers made to feel ashamed about their choice of reading material, the publishers don't do much to change that. Romance readers should wield more power given the dollars we spend. I recently saw Digby Diehl, the book editor for Good Morning America, do his spiel on summer reading. This is the first time he was allowed by the show to discuss a romance as a reading choice in many years of appearing on the show. That's horrible, don't you think? Don't you think publishers, if they stopped thinking of romance as a necessary evil (it makes them all that money, after all), could remedy that situation, at least in part?
Many readers would like to communicate with the publishers and have the publishers take an active role in facilitating this. To some extent, they are - nearly every publisher maintains a web site, which captures readers who are online, but, and it's hard to remember this, but most people still are not online.
What would be on your publisher "wish list"? Would you ask for tear-out postcard surveys to be included in the books you buy? If you could wave a wand and stop certain bandwagon practices such as baby books, which storylines would you axe? Does it make as little sense to you as it does to me that money for promotion goes to authors who are already established? Please e-mail me with your responses.
What About Set-Asides?
I recently mentioned that I have never enjoyed a book I set aside, and am actually more likely never to pick it up again, let alone finish it. However, I don't mean by setting aside putting a book done for a day or two because it's reached a critical juncture and I need to back off, nor do I mean setting a book down for a short period because the tension has gotten too great. After all, I often have more than one book "going" at once. Do you? It's been more than a year since we talked about this, so please let me know by e-mailing me here.
What I mean by setting aside a book is putting it down because I'm not enjoying it. I heard from several of you on this, and, as usual, there isn't a consensus on this. Some of us either never finish the book or never enjoy such books while others end up enjoying the books. Author Madeline Baker/Amanda Ashley wrote, "I'm a hard sell. . . an author has to catch me on the first page, and I'll read as long as the book holds my interest. I've read several books that had prologues that I thought were fascinating, only to find myself losing interest about 50 pages down the road. . . I have, on rare occasions, gone back to try again, but I can't think of a single book that I set aside because I had lost interest in it, and then went back and finished."
On the other side are readers such as Karen, who wrote, "Sometimes I will start a book and it won't catch my attention. I always think that it is me - mood, attention span, time of the month, etc. I always try again and usually am able to finish it. Some books take two or three times."
Reader Liz wrote, "I'll actually put a book down (this just happened) for almost a year and then pick it up and finish it. This isn't the norm for me, but it does happen. I actually had this experience with Outlander myself also. I set it down for over 2 years, and by then had forgotten what was happening so I started over and then devoured it and went out and bought the rest in the series. Even her newest one in hardcover!"
Karen and Liz, you've got more patience than I! I subscribe to the "so many books, so little time" school of thought.
Andrea, our Jane Feather fan, is more like me when it comes to set asides. She wrote, "I practically never go back to a book. I figure it I'm bored with the characters or plot it's because the characters and plot are boring and not amount of time is going to change that. I have tons of unfinished books waiting for a home."
Lucia wrote, "I have never set a book aside, and gone back to it later. I can usually tell by the first couple of chapters, sometimes even the first couple of pages, if this is a book I want to read or not. I don't really get angry that the book doesn't interest me, it's more like I feel sad and disappointed, that what I thought was going to be a good read, judging by the title and/or back cover blurb, didn't interest me after all. In my case it has nothing to do with my mood, because if I'm not in the mood to read, (i.e. too much going on in my life and I can't concentrate), I won't even try to start a book. I'll wait till I'm in the mood to read."
It's Touchy-Feely Time:
Lucia's feelings of sadness and disappointment are ones I am very familiar with. I recently read and reviewed a book by an author whose work I enjoy, and the first third read like a five-heart material. When it all fell apart, I was very sad. Even more recently, I read and reviewed a book by an author whose last book earned a 5-heart review from me. This new release was just so-so, and, again, I felt sad and disappointed.
My husband is amazed that I could actually feel sad just because I was disappointed in a book. But the power of the written word can be so moving and wonderful, that, when your expectations are not met, sadness seems quite reasonable as a response.
Have I finally gone off the deep end here? Or do you sometimes feel deep regret when your book expectations are not met? Is it somehow a stronger regret when the book is a romance because, after all, romances are about feelings? Please e-mail me here and let me know what you feel.
Now that summer is here or nearly here, many of us are readying ourselves for vacations. What good would a vacation be without the inclusion of some fabulous books? I'll be going on my family vacation in a couple of weeks and am already starting to pick books to bring with me.
What books do you plan on reading on your vacation? Do you stick with romance? Take that "important" hardback or something in another genre? Bring one sure thing - an all-time favorite just in case? I'll be bringing romance, of course, but I'll probably sneak in a couple of older books from my TBR mountain because this is, after all, a vacation.
I'd like to start a list of good summer reading books. I like to bring long books like James Mitchener's to the beach because I start to panic if I think I'm going to run out of reading material with hours of sun and swimming left to go in a day.
What do you plan on bringing on your vacation? Which books you've already read make fine summer reading material? Please let me know by e-mailing me here.
The End, Again:
There are lots of things coming up both in this column and at The Romance Reader in general. I hope you'll check back at the site often and look for my next column before the 16th, when I'll be on vacation for a week. What I plan on working on right now is turning a recent conversation with author Dara Joy into an article.