Issue #48 (March 14, 1998)

Itchy Fingers:
Earlier this year we began to explore the itchy fingers phenomenon that occurs for many romance readers when there is a lengthy separation between the hero and heroine in a romance. Beverly Latham laid out a trio of separation scenarios which are problematical for her: the lengthy physical separation, the emotional separation, and the big misunderstanding that often leads to either of the two other types. In contrast to Beverly's view, I indicated that while many of my favorite romances are those where the hero and heroine actually like one another throughout the story (thereby precluding an intensely emotional separation), many favorite romances for me do include emotional separations, and, yes, the dreaded big misunderstanding. Where I draw the line in the sand is when a physical separation occurs which we as readers are a part of that is of some real length.

Because the message board is still a relatively new feature, I'm not sure how many of you read the messages posted to it in relation to this topic. As a result, it's hard to gauge how much "reporting" of the messages I should include in this column. My sense is that only a minority of you participated in the board, and that I should give the same "recap" I generally do when re-visiting an issue. If I'm wrong and most of you kept up with the board, this obviously wont work.

How many of us get itchy fingers when we come across a lengthy separation? In other words, do most of us feel the need to page ahead to see when the hero and heroine get back together? Do we put down the book for awhile before we are ready to "deal with it"? Does it bother us a little or a lot?

Rebecca wrote something that resonated with me, and with Beverly as well. She wrote, "I think what you are getting at is whether or not the basis for the book is the 'big misunderstanding', yes? In Garwood's books or JAK's there is some sort of wall or misunderstanding between the couple, but it isn't what the romance is about, and therefore it is not only tolerable, but an enjoyable addition, because when it finally comes down at the end (usually the hero finally admits that what he indeed feels for the heroine is the big L) it is a joy to read."

Beverly, who started this whole thing, heartily concurred. She definitely loses interest "if keeping them apart because of this emotional wall becomes the entire tone of the book." She adds, however, that "it's an extremely gray area because some authors have that ability to create the wall, use its existence quite a lot in the way the characters act, and yet still have some kind of interaction between the hero and heroine to create the romance anyway."

Yes, certain authors create a wall and work successfully to create the romance. But I've read romances where the wall is the basis of the romance, and it worked equally well. Again, while I am a huge fan of Garwood and JAK and how they don't create such walls at all, emotional separation is not the big bugaboo for me as it is for Beverly. I recently read a book called My Darling Kate, which is predicated on both a wall and a big misunderstanding. While at times I was extremely frustrated with the lead characters for their stubborn, clinging to this wall behavior, I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

But, before we get off track and turn this into another discussion of conflict in romance (which is really what I believe Rebecca and Beverly are talking about here), let's get back to separations.

Rebecca, Beverly, and I all agree that we have the itchiest of fingers when any type of separation goes on too long. It's an agony for us to read a book which has at its center a separation that feels forced, that it's been written to pad the book. Beverly put it succinctly when she wrote, "If I can see that they've had an opportunity (that's also important) and simply didn't take it for no reason other than to prolong the agony. . .big yuck. . .It's not that there's a separation, it's how long it (the wall) stays up."

Stacey seems to agree; she wrote that, "While some authors use separations to enhance their book's plot, others just use them to enhance their book's length." She added that she's found this to be the case with books that would have been decent Regency Romances and instead are "interminable historical romances with a higher price".

Since most Regency Romances center on the relationship between the hero and the heroine, perhaps now is the best time to interject Robin's thoughts. She gets annoyed "when the road to happiness is cluttered by plot devices and story lines that don't seen to serve any purpose and don't drive the story forward." And while not fully on topic but still interesting, and since related to skanky sex (which we'll get to later, I promise!), I'll report the remainder of Robin's comments:

"I generally don't like hanky panky between villains (or anyone else besides the H/H for that matter). It distracts from the H/H. That's who I'm here to read about. For me, that's as bad as secondary characters having a stronger story line that the H/H. I feel the same about separations, emotional or physical. If there is a purpose for it, fine. A civil war story, for example, is probably going to deal with separation. Fine, that would make sense. But if the separation goes on and on and is not used effectively, I have trouble connecting with the H/H and I don't buy into their connection. The only time physical separation really works for me is when an emotional connection has already been established."

Nora put a different spin on it altogether. She isn't bothered by lengthy separations unless "one realizes how much he or she really loved the other one after being away for a few years. If you didn't like them when you were together before, why do you think that will suddenly change? Then the book ends with a happy reunion, and I feel unconvinced that the characters belong together."

Ocean wrote that emotional separation is a necessary tool when used properly, and that most physical separations stem from emotional ones. Physical separations most definitely stem from emotional ones where author Judith McNaught is concerned. Two of her most beloved books are those I couldn't finish because of these physical separations. But since many readers adore Almost Heaven and Paradise, I'll share the comments by those who wrote in about McNaught.

Natalie wrote that while physical separations in romance are not generally to her liking, she found McNaught's handling of them in Remember When and Paradise worked for her because "the separations cause her characters to change so that the relationships can mature". Kate indicated that McNaught's separations were effective for her because they didn't seem too lengthy and because they were action filled. Overall, Katie thinks that "it's when the separations are long in terms of pages that readers just get plain bored."

Teresa, who confesses that in her own as yet unpublished manuscript, the hero and heroine are separated a couple of times, wrote that Winter Rose by Linda Windsor included a hero and heroine separation lasting "quite a bit" in the last half of the book and yet wasn't boring at all. In fact, she "couldn't stop reading" to find out "how they got back together".

Which brings us full circle, at least for Beverly. She wants to know what'll keep a reader's interest during these separations, especially lengthy ones such as Teresa mentioned. Most readers can accept, live with, tolerate, or even enjoy a short separation, but Teresa was the only one who fessed up to enjoying a lengthy one. We've been brought full circle for me in that it sounds as though most of those who responded simply tolerate these separations. When readers say separations worked for them, are they saying they can live with them, or that they enjoyed them?

Cathy's response is that separations can be good "as long as the story keeps moving and progressing during these periods". She finds "the anticipation can be great", but also says, "I don't mind separations". So, what have we said here? It sounds as though readers understand that separations are sometimes necessary to story line and plot. Separations often seen forced, in which case they are often agonizing for the reader. Some authors do this better than others, at least for some readers. And, for other readers such as myself, emotional separations can work at times and not at others, but physical separations are best tolerated when short or "unlived" by the reader.

If you've got anything to further clarify or dispute these conclusions, please post to the message board at the end of this column. Authors, this might be a good time for you to jump in.

Skanky Sex:
Last night I read Suzanne Simmons' new release, No Ordinary Man, wherein a man and his stepmother engage in some skanky sex. He's 40, she's a generation older, and to hear his stepdaughter describe it (she likes to watch - don't ask!), it's pretty vile. The book itself was alright, but I wondered why yet another author had felt the need to include skanky sex to illustrate just how bad the bad guys are.

To me, skanky sex is rather an onomatopoeia-ic term - it is what it sounds like. That is, sex between people that has nothing to do with love. It's sex that feels dirty, sometimes degrading, and the reader feels voyeuristic after reading such a scene. Christine wrote, "I agree with you that this is becoming a bit overused. If I see it occasionally, it doesn't usually bother me, but, too often I see it used as an excuse to include erotica in a romance novel. Sometimes it's enough to make me slightly queasy and throw me off the book." Given that in at least two recent reads the only true sex scenes (sorry, I can't bring myself to call them love scenes) are of this skanky variety, I think Christine's got a point. In the Simmons' book, this isn't the case, but I still think Christine's comments are valid.

As Robin indicated earlier, she doesn't like skanky sex because it distracts from the hero and heroine and "doesn't advance" the romance between them. TJ agreed, as did Cecelia, who wrote that in a recent read, the skanky sex figured more prominently than the love scenes between the hero/heroine. She emphatically stated, "I don't like it! I'm reading the book for the relationship between the hero/heroine, not the villains." Cas concurred, adding "I enjoy a romance written by an author who is confident enough to take risks with the characters sex lives. However, when the secondary characters are having more sex than the main ones, I lose interest fast. I also enjoyed Stella Cameron's first attempts in that direction although I feel she has gone overboard lately with that idea."

The discussion focused on two authors who have used/abused skanky sex. Linda Howard's Shades of Twilight included an incestuous sex scene that "turned" Ellen's stomach. Christine differentiates between skanky sex that's there to illustrate character and skanky sex that's there so the author can try her hand at erotica. She wasn't as bothered by that "pretty disgusting" father/daughter scene in Twilight because she thought the author "was working towards that very reaction. I think (Linda Howard) was trying to present it as a disgusting thing in order to show the true colors of those characters. It wasn't an attempt at erotica - it was character development. On the other hand, the skanky sex in Stella Cameron's works strike me as always being an attempt at erotica. It bothers me that in some of her books there is more skanky sex between the bad guys than 'good clean sex' between the hero/heroine."

Cas, who earlier indicated that Stella Cameron has abused skanky sex, thought Linda Howard did a "great job in Shades of Twilight. The habits of the antagonists are part and parcel of their overall evil makeup. The love scenes between the main characters are intense and steamy but because of their personal depths, it isn't tasteless."

I don't know what Stella's motivations are, but I've found in the books I've read by her that she uses skanky sex for both reasons. It worked in the first book by her I read, but seemed stale the next time around. For me, it was an intriguing device the first times I saw it used, but now that it keeps coming up, I'm plain old tired of it. Like so many good things, there's such thing as too much of a good thing. I think we've reached saturation point. Do you? Sharon does. She wrote, "Man, do I ever hate the skanky sex scenes between villains. . . Don't overwhelm us with it! The less skanky sex, the better!"

Speaking of:
Too much of a good thing is simply. . .too much. In my interview with Mary Balogh, she indicated that she was done in by all the "baby" books she's been reading as judge of a contest. The "too many baby books" complaint is one I've been hearing for a couple of years now. There are readers who enjoyed the baby phenomenon at the start, but, like Balogh, have reached their saturation point. There are others, including at least one author I know, who don't like baby books at all because babies aren't conducive to romantic love. This author, who is a parent, lives with babies and children; she doesn't want to read about it. Not being a reader of many category romances, this hasn't been an issue for me, although I have read some books with babies and children, and they worked just fine for me. But this topic does resonate for many, many readers.

I was recently in touch with author Carla Cassidy, who writes for Silhouette, has written "baby" books in the past, and continues to do so. Her May release is titled Reluctant Dad and her August release will be Will You Give My Mommy a Baby? Here's what she had to say about books and babies:

"If you've been living in a cave, or haven't read a book in the last ten years, then you probably haven't noticed the trend of putting babies in romance books. I've heard that many writers and editors are tired of babies, but the readers seem to love them.

"In actuality, I think publishers are jumping onto the bandwagon that the movie and television industry has been riding for years. Kids sell. Whether it's bologna, ice cream or car tires, a fresh-faced giggling kid has power over intelligent adults. Take a baby and go to a mall, watch reasonable, educated grown-ups cross eyes and goo-goo talk in an effort to win a single smile.

"So, what is the appeal of smiling babies and giggling tots? For me as a writer, a child represents untainted innocence and the possibility of all things dreamed. They are the hope for the future, the continuation of all that is good in mankind.

"A child in a book should not take away from the romance between the hero and heroine, but rather should add to the magic of love. A child can speak and see the truth as adults often can't. They are unencumbered by rules and mores, function purely on emotion and instinct. They are the light of truth and capable of enormous unconditional love.

"Babies are a symbol of past and future, the refueling of life with each generation. I love writing about babies and children and will continue to do so as long as the readers want them.

"If you are having trouble understanding the appeal of babies I suggest you borrow one from a friend or a relative. Hold that baby in your arms, snuggle him or her next to your heart. I dare you to remain unmoved...untouched by the sweet smell, the soft little sighs...the very magic of new life."

Where do you fit in this debate? Do you not read enough "baby" books for this to be an issue? Do you think we've simply been inundated by them in recent years and it's time for a change? Are you one of those who thinks babies and children intrude upon a romance and should be limited to an epilogue?

The Third Degree:
In an earlier column, I introduced how Nadine delineates between three different types of romance authors. There are "comfort food" authors, authors who write romances filled with strong emotional upheaval, and authors who fill their books with "a kind of dissonance, an unsettled feeling in expectations of their characters and their character's actions but plenty of poetry."

Nadine uses this separation between author types as a filter when she hears about various books by other readers. I do this myself, and I suspect many others do as well. In real life there are those of us who need constructs to help organize our life. Not just our reading, but life in general. Just as Nadine and I enjoy that sort of "boxing" of author and reader types, many other readers rebel against the very idea. For them, "construct" isn't the key - fluidity is.

Flip is one of those rebels for whom fluidity is key. Her comments struck a chord with others, so I'm including them here:

"Unfortunately I must disagree with Nadine's Three Degrees of Romance. These classifications are based upon her perceptions of these books, they do not adequately describe the different types of romances or the different type of romance readers. I read and enjoy books from all three alleged categories.

"First and foremost, romance readers are a diverse group of people. We read romance for different reasons. As an individual readers, we might read different romances for different reasons. Our emotional moods and degree of energy plays an important role in our reading choices. For example, when I am tired, I do not read a challenging mystery or an emotionally demanding romance. Another factor is our romance reading background. I have been reading romances for 28 years and on my keeper shelves are books are books from the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's as well as the classics by Austen,the Brontes, and Heyer. My perception of a book may vary greatly from a reader who has been reading romances for a few years. What may be fresh and new to her may be cliched to me. There are trends. Obviously, the publishers are pushing contemporary, suspense novels over historical novels. Just look at Romantic Times whose reviews often reflect the publisher's promotions more accurately than the readers' tastes.

"How would I categorize reading taste? I am not brave like Nadine. I think that romance readers are too diverse a group to categorize. The best option would be publish well written romance novels of all types. It can be expected the no one novel will suit all of us."

Emily is another reader who wont be fit into this construct. None of her favorite authors fits into the categories described. She went on to say that "the authors listed for the comfort reads tend to be so predictable to me that they annoy. The authors for the second category have just never grabbed my interest. And, as for the third category, I keep hearing how great and wonderful the authors are, but they've never managed to get me to read one of their books and like it." The authors Emily does like, including Jo Beverley, Mary Jo Putney, and Georgette Heyer, don't seem to her to fit into any of the categories. She would probably put Nora Roberts in the "comfort" category, but hasn't a clue where to put someone like Julia Quinn, whom she says "doesn't have the same hero and heroine in every book".

I've said before that variety is the key for many of us. My personal preference is toward comfort reads when it comes to romance, but that too many comfort reads in a row can be as annoying as too many emotionally draining ones. It's interesting to note that Heyer is considered the founder of the Regency Romance and that both Beverley and Putney innovated within the Regency Romance, extending the boundaries of what's considered acceptable. Beverley, in particular, continues to push the envelop of what's considered "romance". Both she and Putney are two of the genre's most talked about and admired authors on-line.

Good versus Bad:
Last time out, I started talking about heroes and villains, and how heroes do things for the right reason, regardless of the outcome. I said that villains do the wrong thing for the wrong reason. While villainy is mostly cut-and-dried in romance, heroes and heroines aren't. That's because of a little old dramatic premise called moral ambiguity.

Real people are complex, and have complex motives for doing the things they do. Real people screw up. Real people sometimes try to do the right thing but it ends up being wrong. Why shouldn't characters in a romance? I thought Katherine Sutcliffe's comments on moral ambiguity (among other things) were important. The authors talked about "good" authors in the Three Degrees discussion above are all known for the complexity of their characters. Rexanne Becnel was mentioned in one of the postings. Her heroine from Thief of My Heart certainly behaved in a morally ambiguous manner, although good intentions guided her through a minefield of questionable choices. This is a fine book, btw, and one I never hear discussed on-line.

Suzanne wrote that she likes "when good people are weak and do bad things and reform in the story or alternately someone of lazy moral behavior reforms." She finds it hard to believe when someone changes immediately and forever, however, because "people aren't like that. It is a process, and hopefully the story documents the journey".

Let's talk some more about moral ambiguity, and perhaps let's begin a discussion of romances starring a hero or heroine who was actually a villain in a previous book. I know there are some out there. What are the books, who are the authors, and what did you think of them?

For the Message Board:
It's time to post to the message board now, so let's recap the topics of the day:

    Itchy Fingers - What do you do when you get itchy fingers due to a lengthy separation between lead characters? Do you simply tolerate such separations or do you actively enjoy them?

    Skanky Sex - Does it matter why the author includes skanky sex in a romance? If it's to sneak in erotica, is that different than if she's trying to illustrate character? Do you sense a bandwagon effect going on lately?

    Baby Books - Do you like "baby" books? Do you think they are overdone? Do you think they don't have a place in a romantic story except at the end? How do author Carla Cassidy's comments strike you?

    Good versus Bad - Continue our discussion of moral ambiguity. And, if you know of books starring someone who was a villain in a previous book, share the author, the title, and your impressions.

    Our "New" Format - How is the board working out? Did you read all the comments presented in this column already and so were bored? Or did you skim or possibly skip the board and so were presented with fresh commentary?

TTFN, Laurie Likes Books

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