Issue #36 (October 10, 1997)

So Much to Share. . . Where to Begin?
There are several threads begun in the past few columns that need to be sewn up, as it were, including talk of tormented heroines, reader "cut-off" points in historical romance reading, and the mid-list crisis. We'll talk next time about books that gross us out and of external and intra-character conflict, which we first discussed many months ago. So, let's tidy things up a bit and begin with a discussion on tormented heroines.

Tormented Heroines:
When I first broached this topic, I was afraid no one would respond. See, in the past, while many of you wrote in about various types of heroes, many less of you responded to talk of heroines. Whether this comes from the fact that many of us focus on the hero in a romance and/or imagine ourselves to be the heroine is up for debate. But after a myriad of you wrote in about the too stupid to live heroine, I sighed with relief, knowing at least a few of you would respond.

One thing I notice when I'm reading a book with a tormented heroine is that she's quite different from a tortured hero. While not always the case, the tortured hero generally externalizes his torture, making everyone around him miserable with his anger. On the other hand, the tormented heroine tends to internalize her anger and focus it on herself. If you've read much on how men and women handle failure, you'll know romance authors have done their homework. If a woman fails to succeed on a project, she blames herself. If a man fails to succeed, he blames others. The logic goes, of course, that men are bigger risk-takers because of this. Who knows?

Romance authors apparently know their psychology, because of the manner in which they make use of these male/female differences. The best authors, of course, tweak things and turn them on their heads. Not too long ago I read Nora Roberts' Born In series about three women (two sisters and their half-sister). This is quite a troubled threesome, and each of them handled their torment in a different manner.

My favorite of the trio is Margaret Mary (Born In Fire), an artist. Nora created a wonderfully tormented heroine in Maggie and used the masculinity of "artist" to fashion a heroine who is strong, stubborn, and selfish. She is my favorite heroine from this trilogy. Brianna (Born In Ice) is tormented in an entirely different manner. She is completely feminine, in attitude, in manner, in lifestyle. She lives to serve and keeps everything locked inside. I'm sure she is wonderful as well, but she is so different from me that I could not identify with her at all.

Finally, there is Shannon (Born In Shame), who is of the new world but is drawn to the old. She is torn between business and art, the new world and the old, what's she's known versus the vast unknown. Each of these women were successful, each found themselves whole by the end of their stories, and yet each was tormented in an entirely different manner.

Brianna and Shannon fit the more typical heroine mold, but Margaret Mary tweaks and twists it so that her story is my favorite. In many ways, she acts as a tortured hero would - she's seemingly indifferent to common courtesy. She doesn't answer her phone, doesn't wear a watch, she acts. . . gasp. . . selfishly. How can we love a heroine like this? Well, we do, and precisely because she's so different.

But it's also because she's the same. She's been unloved, raised by a mother who didn't want her. She succeeds, in her art, and her love, in spite and in part because of that. Whereas Maggie burns with her torment, Brianna turns to hearth and home in an effort to warm up her cold heart. She overflows with kindness and motherly caring to make up for the kindness and caring she didn't get from her own mother. And, Shannon, whose world has been rocked by news that she isn't whom she thought herself to be, both lashes out and retreats into herself, trying to gain equilibrium and discover which world she belongs in.

Each of these women touches us because of the emotions underlying her dilemma. We've all felt unloved, filled with rage, and are at times unsure where we belong. The tormented heroine touches us deeply because at times she is us. And when the tormented heroine is tormented no more, we are joyful - there is success, there is love, there is happiness, perhaps even for us when the going is tough.

I'd like to share with you some of the comments I received on the tormented heroine. And, if you haven't read it yet, I'd like to direct you to a wonderful Quickie by author Connie Flynn.

Marion wrote that tormented heroines seem more accessible than their male counterparts. She believes, "Their problems somehow seemed more realistic, to me at least, than suffering over some long lost love betrayed and hating the opposite sex as tortured males are wont to do. . .What makes them more appealing than some of the male counterparts are that many of them managed to retain a high degree of common sense, rationality, as well as intelligence. While they may be cold or withdrawn, they could still manage to move on with their life. (Unlike some stubborn, distrustful, ranting hulk of a brute in some books)."

Rebecca wrote that the tormented heroine seeks to protect others from what torments her, unlike "the usual tormented hero, who is pretty much protecting himself". Rebecca especially likes Kara from Christina Skye's Bride of the Mist and the heroines of Jennifer Greene, who "have been through some pretty tough stuff, and yet find humor in life".

It seems that for many readers, it is easier to compare and contrast the tormented heroine with the tortured hero, and Karen, as did Marion and Rebecca, follows suit. Karen loves those tortured heroes who have seen their own vulnerability. She loves as well the tormented heroine who "has found her own strength. That's what I love about heroines like Lily in Then Came You by Lisa Kleypas, or Juliet in Silk & Secrets by Mary Jo Putney. Because of the circumstances in their lives, they have been forced to move past 'traditional' roles and become strong in their own right. And when they find a man who accepts that, but also provides a shoulder to lean on - wow, great romance."

Meredith is grabbed by the complexity of the tormented heroine. She wrote:

"Their struggles to overcome terrible pasts, and to find happiness, are that much more inspiring than those blessed with wonderful childhoods and happy brain chemistry.

"At the risk of sounding conceited, being a little complicated and tormented myself, I can't relate to the happy little beauties of many romance novels. There's nothing I can learn from them. They were just born to be picked for the pep squad and marry the quarterback. The tormented heroines, now those are the heroines I can really root for.

"Tormented heroines are in a way going against standard romance formula, which I like as well. The distant antecedents of the romance novel, such as Richardson's Clarissa, could feature a tormented heroine, but she usually died in the end. Later romance novels could end happily, but only if the heroine wasn't too damaged in the process. Lately I've seen more tormented heroines, and like anything which experiments with the rules, I find these stories exciting. I also like the tormented heroine, for it acknowledges that women can be deep, complex and fragile as men.

"Two that I particularly admire are Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart and Jo Beverley's My Lady Notorious. In both stories, the heroine has already survived hideous experiences, and become bitter and cynical. In both stories, the hero is the gentle teacher of love and trust, taking the traditional heroine's part, while still remaining very manly. Both were very touching."

Rose wrote in to say that authors can go too far as far as tormenting these heroines. There is a fine line between redemption and depression, and some authors do seem to forget that bleakness has to be balanced by brightness. Otherwise the reader is worn down and sometimes feels like engaging in a bit of wallbanging. According to Rose, Kinsale's The Prince of Midnight had "more torment per page than the Bible." She hasn't read another Kinsale since reading this book because it was far too depressing. She wrote, "There was no joy in that book as far as I was concerned."

While I haven't read that book in particular, I have read books where there was a lack of this necessary balance, where there was torment on top of torment, darkness on top of darkness, so much so that I was worn out by the end of the book and didn't care about the characters any more.

Let's talk some more about tone, about whether certain books crossed the line from redemption to depression, and, if you feel like it, more about the tormented heroine based on the discussion above. Please email me with your comments on either or both topics. And, if you haven't visited lately, check out (and possibly contribute to) the Tormented Heroines Special Title Listing at All About Romance - it's one of twenty four special lists maintained.

Finally, reader Janet made the leap from tormented heroine to. . .the "other" woman. She writes, "How about a section about the other woman. I sometimes like her much more than the heroine, who often are real weenies. The "other woman" knows how to take care of herself. I've occasionally rooted for her to get the hero rather than the so-called heroine. Just curious to see if I'm the only one."

Is Janet alone out there or are there others among us who sometimes secretly root for the other woman? Please let me know by emailing me here.

Historical Settings & Cut-Off Points:
The skill of the author becomes apparent in books that are bleak and grim. If rather than redemption the reader finds depression, the author has failed. Sometimes it's not necessarily the characters that fail, it's the skill of the author in handling the setting. There are some periods in history that are more difficult to write than others by virtue of their weight.

I've read several books set in the gloomier eras (the reign of Henry VIII, the English Civil War), and have found that very few have worked for me. Some of the books were filled with the political and religious troubles of those times, while, in others, it seemed as though grim despair crept into stories that were not even about life at Court or religious persecution. I'm sure that explains why so many of us prefer to read about the Georgian and Regency eras, granting, of course, that for many, life was hardly a political or economic cake walk.

This discussion is a roundabout way of leading into what we discussed last time, about "cut-off" points in history. I indicated then that one of my least favorite settings for a romance is the Victorian era. Readers wrote in, many in agreement, others who felt otherwise. Because of the varying views even among those who agreed, it started me thinking about other times in history that romances are sometimes set in, and which ones I enjoyed, and which I didn't.

Petal enjoys westerns up through the 1890's, but doesn't like the "modern" feel of other historicals set in the United States if set this late in history, particularly if the setting includes New York or large cities. For non-westerns, her cut-off ends with the end of the Civil War.

For European historical romances, she, as I do, loves medieval settings. We break ranks after this in that she enjoys Tudor romances. Like me, however, she finds it difficult to read a Protectorate (Cromwellian) romance, but does enjoy those following this period, in the Restoration era. (If, as I was until I instituted the Historical Cheat Sheet, you don't know your Tudors from your Stuarts from your George's, please check out the Cheat Sheet. It will help you enjoy your historical romance reading enormously.) Again, we agree on loving the Regency. Her cut-off point for English historicals is in the 1830's; mine is probably the 1850's.

While Christina enjoyed The Mermaid by Betina Krahn and Duchess by Deanna James, both set in the Victorian era, she "tend to avoid romances with more recent settings." She avoids books set in Britain after 1850 because "the repressed, overly class conscious, British victorian characters are the big turn-off to me!"

Karen's "cut-off" point ends after the Georgian era because she finds the characters have more to offer emotionally. In her experience, books set before the Regency have more of a zest for life. She adds, "Honor and loyalty are big issues, rather than acting in a socially correct manner. Young aristocrats are typically looking to cut the ties with their elders ideals. Women are fighting the constraints of pre-arranged marriages."

Eleanor's cut-off for historical romance eliminates medievals from the picture. Her preference, as with many, is the regency era, but she would like to see more books set in periods of political upheaval in the United States (Eleanor is from Australia), such as the Civil War and the American Revolution. Janet too dislikes medievals and prefers books set in the regency.

Bonnie's overall view of why she reads romance is much like mine. She wrote, "Victorian stuff out there too dark and depressing. Also, I've read some about the upper class in Britain later and it just doesn't come across the same when they're motoring about in cars and calling on the new-fangled telephone. They just seemed sillier and more irrelevant.

"It took years for me to read contemporaries. . . The past is lots more romantic to us because it's different! We can ignore all the many inconveniences/dangers (hygienic, illnesses, almost total helplessness of women to do anything worthwhile without the support of a man) etc., and focus on what we perceive to be the romantic aspects of the time. I find medievals to be a little darker, but still a good read.

"If I want reality, I'll watch the news. In romance, I want romance, I want the make-believe, the fun, the escape. It's a fun way to relax and every now and then, we slip up and actually learn something useful!"

Having said I agree with Bonnie, I must add that I recently saw a biography of Queen Victoria on television. How wonderful it was from reading Ilana Miller's Historical Cheat Sheet segment on her to actually have known what they were talking about! Kind of ironic too, since the period was. . .Victorian.

I received two very interesting letters from readers, one from Jennifer, who mirrors both Bonnie's and my own basic thoughts on the various historical eras we enjoy and those we don't. The other is from Charlotte, who believes that an historical presentation from the more recent past works just fine, thank you very much, and can be very romantic. Both are fairly lengthy, so I've set up a link here for you to read in full what these women had to say. (LLB: I've added additional comments from readers to this special link (Dec 27). ) Please feel free to email me with your thoughts on cut-off dates, and if you find yourself in agreement or disagreement with any of the comments.

The Mid-List Crisis:
I rarely discuss such weighty stuff as the publishing industry because such stuff generally goes over like a lead balloon, but a few readers did respond to my comments about the mid-list crisis. Much of the mail I received ties the crisis together with the rising price of romances. For instance, Lynn wrote that she, as with many avid romance readers, reads many books a week, so spending more than $5.00 on an unknown author is something she finds difficult to do.

Rebecca "ignorantly thought" that the publishing industry should be there for the reader, and not vice versa. She adds, "How sad that instead of doing us a service, book publishers are now categorizing us as easily satisfied with a few big blockbusters by well known authors, and thus we have become no more than a source of vast amounts of income."

Susan sent me a snippet she'd read in The Los Angeles Times last week, wherein the CEO of Randam House talked about how publishers are giving readers what they want, namely simple and short books that don't require much from the reader. The article, by Josh Getlin, quotes Alberto Vitale: "Americans are harried as never before. They work longer hours; they sleep less. Who has time to read long novels when you're exhausted by 9 p.m.?"

If that is the prevailing attitude in the publishing industry, than I'm afraid we're in for more celebrity tell-alls, more formula, less chance-taking, and less of the innovative writing new writers can bring to the genre. Does this mean there will be less chance of a Diana Gabaldon or Kathryn Lynn Davis being published in the future? Our future stars have to start somewhere. And authors who write complex stories have felt the pinch. Authors like Roberta Gellis and Maggie Davis aka Katherine Deauxville have found it difficult to get recent works published.

Here's what reader Flip sent me the other day:

I am so angry about the mid-list crisis. I wait eagerly for the next book by my favorite writer. Then I discover the writer has completed novels which she can't get published. Uggh!! I am starting a one woman writing campaign. I love Maggie Davis. She has a full length novel set in the regency completed and waiting for a publisher. I want to read this book. For years, I have been waiting for another wonderful Roberta Gellis medieval. Then I find out that she had a novel, Red William's Witch, completed for a decade and she can't find a publisher. The woman is the queen of this historical setting. She has books that have been in publication for thirty years. Sharon Green is a fantasy writer and I love her books. She has several series and I have been patiently waiting for the next installment. The next installments are complete, but she doesn't have a publisher. The writers which I have mentioned are very talented and their books sell very well. Recently, I wrote to Zebra books and received a very nice reply from the president. His executive editor considers "Amethyst Crown by Maggie Davis/Katherine Deauxville to be one of the best historicals that she has ever read." Yet Zebra is concentrating on reprints and they are not publishing the newest Maggie Davis. Somehow, the publishers need to understand that publisher who prints the mid-list authors will reap great financial benefits. Until publishers wise up, the used bookstores will reap the benefits as we devoted fans search for past novels of our favorite writers. Unfortunately, our favorite authors might starve.

While I'm not a Roberta Gellis fan, I know her work sings for many readers. I do know that Katherine Deauxville has strong thoughts on this subject and is writing something for me to post shortly - stay tuned to the Romance Writers on Writing Romance section of All About Romance.

Eleanor was strongly affected by Spider Robinson's open letter as excerpted in the last issue of this column and has taken his message to heart. She plans on immediately buying any book that strikes her fancy, rather than waiting awhile and risking the chance that a small print-run has affected her favorite mid-list authors.

I can't help but compare the publishing industry to the movie industry, where $100,000,000 blockbuster action flicks are released all the time and the smaller, "quality" films sneak by unnoticed. I'm not saying a book by a lead author is the equivalent to an action flick that appeals to a 16 year-old, but if we can't find a way to convince publishers to support the mid-list, there will be no stars of tomorrow. Playing Cassandra is not my preferred M.O., so I'll stop here and ask that some more of you, authors and readers alike, think about the mid-list, the price of books, and email me with your comments. (LLB: additional comments on the mid-list crisis and about publishing in general can be found here.)

Laurie's Picks & Pans:
While All About Romance is not primarily a review site, I'm obviously still reading and rating romances. I will continue to provide my picks and pans in this column, but to make it easier for readers to find them all in one place, I've set up a Picks page, which you can access not only here, but from the Index for Laurie's News & Views.

  • The Arrangement by Lyn Stone, November release. I gave this a 2.
  • Shores of Desire by Tracy Grant, November release. I gave this a 2.
  • Born In Ice by Nora Roberts, 1995. I gave this a 4.
  • Born In Shame by Nora Roberts, 1996. I gave this a 4-.

For Next Time:
We'll talk next time about books that gross us out - let's see if you can top the book where there was a head served on a platter and the adult villain suckled at his mother's breast - how romantic! We'll also talk about external and intra-character conflict, which we first discussed many months ago. I need input from you on these topics, so please email me. Remember, for our purposes, intra-character conflict occurs in those romances where the hero and heroine generally get along. One of the leads has a conflict within him/herself which prevents them from commitment.

This column has been a bit too serious for me, and probably many of you as well. Let's try to lighten up a bit and talk about some of your favorite books of 1997. It's too early to do our year-end polling, but we can start the discussion. Please email me.

TTFN, Laurie Likes Books

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