Issue #43 (January 10, 1998)

Happy New Year!
Happy new year, everyone - I hope it is a healthy, happy, and prosperous time for each and every one of you!

I want to thank Julia Quinn for writing a guest column for me for the last issue. I've set up a special links page for the responses to her wonderful column, including my own.

There are so many outstanding issues over the past couple of months that it's hard to know where to begin! I've been so busy with the web site's daily upkeep, creating new features, and writing up interviews on Julie Garwood and Jo-Ann Power that I haven't actually written a column for a full month. So, before I let writer's block anxiety get the better of me, it's time to jump right in. . .

Lusty Love:
In issues #39 and #40, I spoke about my need for lusty love scenes. Heck, I've talked about this issue so many times in the past that I'm afraid it's nearly been done to death - certainly there are many past issues where love scenes are discussed, as well as three pages of Reader Rants on Sexuality that can be found here. But when someone writes to me and addresses the issue better than I can, I love to showcase them. Author Karen Kay, who has written a series of four romances for Avon (Lakota Surrender, Lakota Princess, Proud Wolf's Woman, and Gray Hawk's Lady, which, by the way, was written during the time when she was being romanced by her husband), wrote me the following, which certainly hit the spot for me, although not necessarily in her personal choice of authors. See if it works for you as well:

"Personally, I don't think one can separate romantic love between and man and a woman from sex. The books we are writing are not for ourselves, but rather to entertain women, and I believe, at least from fan letters that I've received, that women like to read about the consummation of a relationship. It gives the relationship depth.

"Of course, there are the older generation which frown upon reading about sex. and for these people, there are the "sweet" romances. But I think the 90's woman is more realistic and part of the entertainment of a romance is the consummation of that romance. If I'm trying to put myself in the heroine's place, I want to experience how my lover actually makes love to me. If I'm going to admire all that hunk and brawn and those bare buttocks - I want to experience, right along with the heroine, the care and tenderness of my lover.

"I know that I like to read about a romance between a man and a woman, but when there is no sex involved, it loses reality with me.

"Some of my favorite authors are Linda Howard - I don't care what anyone on the site says about her - she writes an incredible story - and if - as someone wrote in - they all seem alike - well, that's because that's her own unique voice. When one picks up a Linda Howard book, they know exactly what they're getting. And that's good.

"I also really like Nan Ryan, Heather Cullman - she write a good light story - but her sex scenes really sizzle. In her newest one, the hero has to give the heroine sex lessons - before they're romantically involved. It's quite humorous.

"Also, Nancy Richards-Akers writes a terrific sex scene, as does Samantha James.

"I also love to read about two people, who may have only met, who yet are so attracted to each other that the sparks fly. They don't even know each other yet, but still there is a level of 'knowingness' that causes them to be pulled to one another.

"I try to put this into many of my books, and it is easier to do, I think because I write Indian romances - Indian hero - white heroine. Neither of my character want to be attracted to one another - yet, there it is and have to learn to deal with it. I find that exciting."

I've heard both good and bad about Nan Ryan, Samantha James, and Nancy Richards-Akers and even said good and bad about James. And, I've heard from a variety of you about what you prefer - some of you will shy away from books that are not at least "R" rated while others of you think that love scenes are the whipped cream atop a pumpkin pie. It's a nice accompaniment but not nearly as important as the pie itself. Still others of you have said that you are made uncomfortable by anything more than the fade out. Luckily for all of us - there's something for all of us.

One author who writes the gamut of love scenes from fairly mild to, for me, anyway, fairly spicy, is author Nora Roberts. I recently read Sea Swept, which I found to be terrific and highly recommend it to anyone who loves men. This book also has amazingly well-written love scenes - on a par with those in many a readers' favorite - Born in Ice.

My first introduction to Nora Roberts was this summer when I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of The MacGregor Brides, which spurred me into reading all of her MacGregor series. I enjoyed the series, but noticed that for books written in the mid-1980's, they were fairly tame. Regardless, her love scenes always seem to work for me, even when they leave me wanting for more, which is, I think, a good sign. In other words, they generally fit the context of the book, and, given the variety of books she writes, this is quite an accomplishment.

Gotta Love Those Men!
Getting back to Sea Swept, I was amazed at how well Nora captured the male characters. They were each different, and each will be featured in the rest of this trilogy set in contemporary Maryland, but I fell in love with the way they talked. The way they talked to one another.

The way they talked to one another was filled with masculinity - I could practically smell the beer being drunk and hear the cussing and burping in my own mind. I know that for some, strong language in a romance is a turn-off, but I also know that when there's an abundance of testosterone in the air, there will be an abundance of four-letter words. I loved that about Sea Swept and asked Nora about it. Here's what she had to say:

"Well, I wanted to write a trilogy that focused in on the male viewpoint, their sensibilities and style this time around. And I wanted to show how three very different men, all with difficult childhoods, could bond as brothers and make a family.

"As for the language, well, knowing guys, I decided when you take a male household, peopled by three former delinquents, basically subtract the female from the equation, they're not going to say aw, shucks. Their language is rough, and for their personality types and situation, real. Men talking to men - it's pretty locker room style.

"I hope the reader sees this as basic, elemental, honest male. I don't censor my characters, their voice is their voice. It has to be for them to become people to me, and therefore, the reader.

"And for myself, I enjoyed the contrast of the rough language with the generosity of spirit, loyalty and compassion these guys possessed."

What do you think about strong language in a romance? Are you bothered by it in general or just at times? Do you fall in love with the men as Nora described? Do you feel kind of warm all over and smell that beer, hear that cussing, or do you want to shout, "Take a bath and clean up your act!" And, what other authors seem to "get it right" when they portray men in all their masculine glory - be it good or bad? Please e-mail me with your responses. I'd like to add that, on the subject of Sea Swept, if other 1998 releases are as good as this one, I'd say we're in for a good year of reading!

Speaking of Which. . .:
Voting for the 1997 All About Romance Reader Favorites is going splendidly, although I have heard from many of you that the year wasn't particularly memorable in many categories. I know that, for me, this was the case. While I was able to choose either a character or title for most categories, 1997 releases were, for me, not as memorable as releases for earlier years.

Voting will remain open for the rest of January and I encourage you not only to vote, but to take a look at the Tabulation Page, which shows you at a glance the top vote-getters in each of the categories. I update this page often, and new names are added all the time. I'll keep the Tabulation Page up until mid-month, and then remove it so that there will be at least a modicum of surprise when I announce the winners in February.

I have done some reading lately, although most of it was not in the romance genre. My recent Picks & Pans are as follows:

    Sea Swept by Nora Roberts, 1997. I gave this a 5-; it will be a Desert Isle Keeper.
    Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, 1993. I gave this a 4. This biography of a college friend is both wistful and witty. Trillin is a marvelous humorous columnist, political crank, and gourmet, and this book surprised me with its depth.
    Hunger Point by Jillian Medoff, 1997. I gave this a 4. This is women's fiction and I am currently in touch with the author regarding a possible interview. Any author who can tackle the Jewish mother-daughter relationship, food, men, and mention the tv movie Bad Ronald is one I recommend.
    Raven's Vow by Gayle Wilson, 1997. I gave this a 3-. I'm hearing great things about her newest release and plan to give this author another chance and read it myself.

Toward the end of last year, I talked about opening up this column more to readers. I've been taking stock at the direction of both The Column and All About Romance in general. There truly is too much for one person to handle, and for me to be able to bring you all you seem to want, I think All About Romance can no longer remain a one-woman show.

As a result, I'd like to bring you guest segments of this column, and, possibly, additional guest issues altogether. I'm going to experiment now with segments prepared by readers Holly Fults and Dee Masiello. The e-mails link at the end of the segments will not only link to my mail box, but to Holly's and Dee's as well, and they will write the follow-up in an upcoming issue.

Of course, me being me, I'll add my own opinion after you read:

What Holly and Has to Say About Double Standards:
I read some postings about Jezebel by Katherine Sutcliffe (which I haven't read), and it reminded me of a double standard I hadn't thought about in a while: the different ways we as readers judge the heroine versus the hero. Apparently the hero and heroine in Jezebel both acted in less than mature ways, but I noticed that readers were much more tolerant and forgiving of his behavior than hers. Just as in reality, we women (although some men read romance, I think we all agree that they are still are small minority) - judge the heroines much more harshly than we do the heroes.

For example, a hero can be promiscuous, at least before he meets the heroine, and readers don't mind. In fact many readers almost demand he be that way! Yet if a heroine is the same way, readers generally accept it only if there are some unusual circumstances - she's being forced, she has amnesia, etc. What about selfishness? A hero can start out selfish as long as he is redeemed in the end, but a heroine has to be unselfish from page one. Oh, she can be tormented, but not tortured, confused, but not selfish. One of the few exceptions to this, as Laurie pointed out, is Born in Fire, and yet I, for one, don't really think Maggie was selfish. Eccentric and demanding, perhaps, but not selfish. It is a measure of Nora Robert's talent and popularity, IMO, that she got away with a heroine who perhaps borders on selfishness.

What Dee and Has to Say About Double Standards:
I am getting my feet wet in "writing" side of romance - it has always been a dream of mine to complete a full story - however, I am not one for light and airy romances. I like my hero's brooding, my heroines strong and secure and my stories dark and powerful - I like them to earn their love. Yet, many ideas I have come up with in my mind I have immediately disallowed because I thought they most likely wouldn't go over well in a mainstream historical romance novel.

In almost every historical romance book, if, for some reason the woman is not a virgin the first time she sleeps with the hero, there is an easy explanation:

    She's a widow
    She was seduced by a "rogue" and too innocent to know better
    She was raped
    She doesn't get the guy in the end (i.e., she is usually the nasty manipulative former lover)

In other words, an unchaste woman is undeserving of the love of a good man. Yet, how many of our darling hero's were the worlds biggest male whores before they finally found the right woman?

I think a female character with a dark past could make for an excellent heroine. Perhaps less likely (or more so) to put up with any grief from the hero.

Please e-mail Holly here and/or Dee here with your comments on the issue of double standards. As for my own thoughts, I think that, for many readers, the heroine is often held to a higher standard because readers identify (or want to identify) with her. Then too, some readers don't want to read a romance where both lead characters need rehabilitation. I can recall one reader saying that if both leads are tortured, their problems seem too unsurmountably depressing, as though they can't walk and chew gum at the same time. And, because women are traditionally viewed as the nurturers in our culture, it may make us too uncomfortable to read about a woman who needs so much nurturing. Finally, yes, the double standard is alive and well in the world, which should come as no surprise, except that we should perhaps wonder why they persist even in our fantasy lives. These are my thoughts. What are yours? Holly, Dee, (and I) would like to hear from you.

The Power of Tears:
There was a post I made to the discussion list I run, Aarlist, awhile ago about whether or not readers can cry when reading a "bad" book. There seemed to be a difference of opinion. Some readers have told me they think an author can push emotion buttons even in a poorly written book. I myself only cry when I feel a connection with the characters. If that's the case, then, to me, the book can't be bad. There is one caveat which perhaps comes from living with a nearly six-year-old girl-child with a highly developed power to manipulate. I've read books where I cried, but felt manipulated into it by the author. So I guess that, for me, I don't want to feel manipulated, and when I do, I'm likely to hold a bit of a grudge against the author. Still, if an author moves me to tears, that book is at least a 3 or likely a 4 heart read in my judgment.

Ellen Michelletti and Rebecca Ekmark both wrote well-thought out responses on this topic and I'd like to present them to you here.

Ellen Answers the Question: Can a Book be Bad if it Affects You Emotionally?
I've thought about this question for a while now. For myself, I read for pleasure and am inclined to say that if you enjoy a book, bond with the characters and empathize with their problems, hopes and joys, then it can't be wrong or bad if you enjoy it. On the other hand, I was an English minor in college and realize that there are some books that are considered great and others that are not no matter how popular they might have been. I have met many people who feel that it is somehow shameful to read for pleasure alone. They feel that if they read, they have to read a great book and "get something out of it" and pleasure alone is not enough. Oddly, most of these people who are reading puritans have no qualms with pursuing hobbies, or sports for pleasure alone, it's only with reading that they feel that they must justify themselves.

I'm not like that. As I get older and the TV shows get to where I can't connect with them, I turn more and more to reading for pleasure. I'm a rereader and have divided my books into two categories: Books that affect me emotionally, but do not hold up upon rereading and books that affect me emotionally, but do not when I read them again.

When I was younger, I read A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter. I loved it. At the time I thought it was one of the best books that I had ever read. When I was older, I read it again. Is it well-written? No. Are the characters those I can empathize with? Elnora, the main character still is; most of the supporting characters are not. Did it still affect me emotionally? Yes indeed! Despite the overwriting and the flat supporting characters, the heroine Elnora Comstock is still lively and appealing. The wonderful writing about nature and the description of the great Limberlost swamp where Elnora goes hunting for moths and butterflies to sell in order to finance her education are vivid and memorable. It's not one of the best books I ever read, but I can still read it again with great pleasure.

Several years ago, The Bridges of Madison County was a massive best-seller. I read it when it first came out and was moved and cried at the end. After a few years, I read it again. It did not hold up. I was very aware of every trick that Robert Waller used to tug at my heartstrings. I did not like the characters and I purely hated that the heroine committed adultery. Her husband seemed like a nice man. Not cruel or mean, his only sin was that he was a little bit dull. He didn't deserve for her to betray him and adultery is a betrayal. Needless to say, for me, this book only brought up emotions of dislike if not disgust on re-reading.

So to answer the question, can a book be bad if it affects you emotionally? No. I see fewer and fewer people reading today. As long as a person enjoys a book and is reading, then I say, whatever you read is fine with me, even though I might not have liked it. Just keep on reading and enjoying what you read. I know that most of what I am reading now will probably not be remembered 100 years from now, but I probably won't be either. I love books and I love to read, and I don't think the books that I read have to "do me some good" to justify my reading them. So if you read and enjoyed The Bridges of Madison County, then fine. Read it, enjoy it, and read some more. Lin Carter once wrote that when people criticized him for writing Sword and Sorcery fiction,that it was fun to write and fun to read and that was enough for him. It's enough for me too.

Rebecca Answers the Question: Can a Book be Bad if it Affects You Emotionally?
She is in labor, she just lost her husband, and an evil rancher is after her land. Are your emotional buttons being pushed? In Julie Garwood's One White Rose, we learn all of this in the first few pages. As I was reading this book, I found myself getting irritated. How can the author expect me to feel anything for this woman's plight without getting to know her character? Isabel is in dire straits - her world is coming apart, and I am not shedding any tears, or feeling any sympathy. Either this makes me a heartless person, or it takes a well-written book with characters I truly care about to pluck my emotional strings. As I weep openly at the latest Hallmark commercial, I have to assume the latter is the case.

There are too many books out there where the author takes the easy way out. If the heroine has been abused enough, if she has lost her child, if she has been raised by wolves, then I, the reader, will care enough about that heroine that the author will not have to work so hard to create a believable character. Admittedly, there are many excellent books out there with heroines that have been abused, lost their children, and have been through other horrific things, that pluck my emotional strings and do it well. What these books have that a less well-written book is lacking, is enough character development to ensure that the tragedy is not all there is to the character.

J.D. Robb's In Death series is a good example. Eve, the heroine, had a horrific childhood. The history of her childhood only comes into play well into the series, after we have had a chance to get to know Eve's character, and therefore, the knowledge is more effective. In Jayne Ann Krentz's Golden Chance, we learn gradually about the heroine's past in a way that adds to the story and the characters gently, and thus more effectively. Books with an in your face tragedy are less likely to earn my sympathy or interest.

There are also well written books that have not moved me as the author intended. In Lisa Kleypas' Then Came You, the heroine was searching for her stolen child, and although as a mother I could understand her anguish, I felt only minor sympathy for her, because although I liked the hero very much, I was not too crazy about the heroine. (To read Lisa's response, please click here.) Even more effective emotionally to me are those instances when a well-written character is going through something that I or someone I care about has gone through. The scene in Nora Roberts' Finding the Dream where Laura confronts her smarmy ex husband only to hear him tell her that he never loved her was a definite tear-jerker for me.

Tears of joy are even harder to come by, and more of a delight. There are several scenes in Lynn Kurland's This is All I Ask (a book definitely on my all time keeper list) which brought tears and laughter at the same time. A few books by Amanda Quick and Julie Garwood (her English and Scots historicals) come to mind.

Aside from tears and laughter, there are situations that just leave me with a warm feeling. Hopefully the HEA ending will do that (after all, isn't that what romance is all about?), as well as friendships, healthy family relationships, and well written children. Nora Roberts creates the most wonderful friendships and families. I sometimes wish for an eccentric artist family, like Dora's in Hidden Riches, or lifelong friends, like the friends in the Dream series. An author has to be really good at character development to create believable relationships, both between the hero and heroine, and among family and friends. If a book does not have likeable characters, the HEA is not satisfying.

There are many ways to reduce me to tears or inspire me to laughter. The one requirement is that I care about the characters. If this is the case, the sky is the limit. Of course, I am about to prove myself wrong. When I read the ending to Judith McNaught's A Kingdom of Dreams in a Desert Isle Keeper Review at All About Romance, I was easily and quickly reduced to tears, and I hadn't even read the book enough to know the hero and the heroine. How can I explain it? Damn good writing.

So you've heard three different takes on "good" and "bad" writing and the power of emotion, with Ellen and Rebecca on two ends of the continuum and me in the middle (what a surprise!). Please e-mail Ellen, Rebecca, and/or myself and let us know where you stand.

This column has been an experiment of sorts - I'll need your feedback to learn whether it was a success or not. Feel free to let me know by e-mailing me if you like less of my views and more of talented readers, or if, for some quirk of fate, my voice happens to work best for you.

TTFN, Laurie Likes Books
In conjunction with:
  • Karen Kay
  • Holly Fults
  • Dee Masiello
  • Ellen Michelletti
  • Rebecca Ekmark

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

Click here to join aarmaillist
Click to subscribe to AAR's twice-monthly mailing list