Issue #58 (September 1, 1998)

Let's do a survey!
It's been awhile since we've done several survey questions like this. When it's time to post to the message board, I'll make it easy by posting each question as a section on the board. All you'll have to do is click on the question, make your answer, then move on to the next question. Nearly all the questions in this survey are ones I've asked at some point in the past; some will be added to other pages here at AAR while others will be included into future columns.

Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know:
In the last issue of this column, we talked a bit about ultra-alpha heroes. Debuting author Adele Ashworth and I had begun a discussion about this type of hero, abusive behavior, and HEA endings, which resulted in my asking her to write a segment for this column. Before we get to that, however, I wanted to further explore my own strained relationship with the alpha hero, especially those at the extreme end of the spectrum, those who walk a fine line between being an alpha hero and an alpha heel (the latter term coined by a member of the Aarlist).

For me, the key to loving a romance is loving the hero and heroine. For me to love the hero and the heroine, I need many things, but I definitely need to understand why each loves the other. In too many books I've wondered why on earth the heroine put up with the treatment she received by the hero. Beyond that, why did she love him at all? The defining and deciding factor is whether or not the heroine glimpses some bit of humanity in the hero. It's not enough for the reader to see that the hero has redeeming qualities, the heroine must see it as well. It doesn't have to be a lot, or often, but at some time the heroine must see the hero perform a measure of kindness or an act of heroism. It might not relate to her at all, but she must see it. If the reader sees it but the heroine does not, it will not suffice.

Other readers have indicated that, for them, the HEA ending is the deciding factor. Still others say that they don't need to see a measure of humanity as long as the heroine knows what motivates the hero. To me that says pity, not love, but if it works for these readers, that's great. The HEA ending is a given for me - if it's not there, I'll not forgive the author. I can forgive the ultra-alpha hero only if I come to love him, even if his redemption comes very late in the book. But I'll only love him if I can understand why she loves him, and it takes considerable skill to do this in books where abusive behavior occurs.

Here's Adele's take on the topic:

"Laurie's column raised both of my eyebrows, as her columns frequently do, although this one especially got me thinking. When I first started reading romance in the 1970s I would always read the last few pages of a book while standing in the bookstore to make sure the story I was about to purchase contained, for me, the all-important "happily ever after" ending. Not only did I want to spend my money on only those books that guaranteed the ultimate happiness for the heroine, I also realized that while I was reading the story I could take almost all abuse thrust upon her by the hero because eventually she would love him as I would. At that time readers could choose Harlequin categories with their domineering Alpha heroes who generally weren't mean to the heroine (just ice-cold and filthy rich), mild-mannered Regencies, or the few historicals written by the big authors- Woodiwiss, Busbee, Rogers, to name three. Authors of historical romance in the 70s nearly always created Alphas - those hard, incredibly handsome rogues who treated the heroine despicably for roughly 599 pages out of 600.

"I loved these Alpha heroes then. Steve from Rogers' Sweet Savage Love was probably my all time favorite. He was dark, gorgeous, mysterious, and just downright mean to the heroine, Ginny. Here's the thing that stumps me: Did I love him in this book? Absolutely. Would I love this guy in real life? Heck, no! And I'd certainly never date him long enough to marry him. What if I lived three hundred years ago and my parents forced me to marry a man like this? Acceptable for his time, would I learn to love him then? I doubt it. How could any woman love a man who verbally chastises her, publicly humiliates her, rejects her in every way but sexually, hurts her over and over emotionally and physically, even rapes her? In real life there is no such thing as forced seduction. Sexual penetration unwanted by either party is always rape. So why do we often accept it in romance, and what does this tell us about the stories we treasure and the heroes we love? I think the answer is twofold: the reader's assurance of the HEA ending, and the author's skillful writing.

"First, reader expectations. I remember reading Sally Beauman's Destiny several years ago. It was a long love story with gut-wrenching twists in which the hero dies at the end of the book. I cried and cried, and although disappointed by the lack of ultimate happiness for the heroine, I wasn't disgusted because this book wasn't labeled a romance. It was labeled fiction. If it had been labeled a romance and I had purchased it as such, I would have been enraged at the hero's death. Most readers of romance want the HEA ending and I am one of them. If a reader purchases a book anticipating the HEA, she wants it, knows it will happen, and reads the book expecting to feel wonderful at the story's close. She will likely accept all nasty behavior by the hero if the book guarantees final happiness for the protagonists, who must come to love and respect each other, even if the hero doesn't accept the depth of his feelings for the heroine until the last page. While reading a book where the hero is mean, abusive, and even rapes the heroine (which is technically what forced seduction is), the reader is assured that this magnificently drawn hero will see the error of his ways and love the heroine passionately - more than life itself - at the end of the story. The reader's "pre-knowledge" of the great moment when the hero begs forgiveness and pronounces his love to the heroine who has pined for his affections, sometimes from as early as chapter one, allows the hero to behave in ways unacceptable in real life. An old book but a good example is this one. In Rogers' Crowd Pleasers, somewhere near the end of the story, the hero, after making love to the heroine, angrily yells something like, "I love you, Annie, and you damn well know it, don't you!" before he stomps from the room. Wow, what a charmer. And yet I loved this hero because, I think, as the reader I had pre-knowledge that all conflict between them would be resolved, and that he was going to soon realize just how deeply he loves Annie, would eventually treat her wonderfully and cherish her for a lifetime. But I would never accept this behavior from a real life man. I'd wonder what was wrong with him.

"The second part of our acceptance of bad behavior in a hero is the ability of the author to make the reader believe. And the only way for an author to do this successfully is to delicately draw the hero so that his redeeming qualities are obvious and his motivations are always clear, even if they're just below the surface and he doesn't recognize them himself. In Katherine Sutcliffe's Dream Fever, the hero, Nicholas, after being taunted by Summer, the heroine, forces himself on her in a very brief encounter in the dirt. She is a virgin and wants him physically although she never comes close to sexual fulfillment. He is rough with her, couldn't care less about her pleasure, and afterward admits, "I practically raped you." Still, I loved this book as I loved this hero, and he was very often cruel. Why did I love him? Because the author subtly, expertly, wove the hero's past into his personality. I understood his nature, his contempt for women, and his motivations. I cried for him, and I cried for Summer as she tried to reach him while he heartlessly continued to push her away.

"I haven't read A Well Pleasured Lady, but I think Laurie's assessment of the scene of forced seduction is accurate, not because the hero isn't raping the heroine - technically he is - but because of the reader's pre-knowledge of the happy ending, and perhaps more significantly of the author's ability to create sufficient motivation for the hero to behave in such a manner. In this particular book the hero's motivation - his desire for the heroine to be pleasured sexually and open up emotionally - was convincing to most readers, and the book was therefore accepted as a wonderful love story.

"But what about a story where the hero rapes or otherwise abuses the heroine, or someone else, in chapter one, before the reader understands his motivations and observes his redeeming qualities? Laurie has mentioned Catherine Coulter's Fire Song, where the hero of this book had raped a woman in a previous book and then treats the heroine despicably in this one. Laurie didn't come to love the hero, and ultimately the story, and I would suggest it wasn't due to the lack of a happy ending where the hero and heroine declare their undying love for each other, but because, for Laurie, the author didn't draw enough motivation into the hero to make his despicable actions understandable or even just acceptable. In every good book there must be conflict or there would be no story at all. Usually, when we're describing disgraceful actions by one protagonist toward the other, the conflict is internal. This is fine providing the author details the motivation for the reader. If the hero rapes or otherwise abuses the heroine or someone else in chapter one, the skilled author has an entire book to clearly define the motivation, and in fact can guide the reader toward understanding the hero or, at the very least, toward accepting his actions. If the author does this well, most readers will learn to love the hero despite his sometimes contemptible flaws. We humans love to forgive and we thrill at the emotionally satisfying ending of any story where goodness and morality triumph. But we must believe it, not because the author tell us it's so, but because she shows us.

"Many readers who posted to the message board for Laurie's column stressing they could never accept a hero who rapes. Period. This is a difficult position for the author who might lose readers if the hero behaves horribly to the heroine, or anyone, before his motivations are justified. Some readers won't get that far before tossing the book aside. I'm pretty accepting of despicable behavior in a romance I know will have a happy ending, and yet three or four years ago I picked up a book by a famous romance author, flipped through it to see if I wanted to buy it because I'd read lots of her books in the past, and read these words from the hero to the heroine, "That wasn't rape. This is rape." Needless to say, I didn't purchase the book. Although I might accept rape in a story where I don't know it's coming because the author has already drawn me in, I don't want to know the hero is going to rape the heroine or anybody.

"Times are changing in romance, and fortunately, I think, the ultra-Alpha hero is a thing of the past. Horrific actions by the hero are becoming rarer. By nature, Beta and Gamma heroes are less likely to abuse, although this is not always the case. Contemporary romance allows for a broad definition of today's heroes, men that we women in the 1990s would love and marry ourselves. The last fifteen years or so have also brought great changes to series romance where the reader is more often placed into the hero's mind, thus motivation is more keenly observed. In historical romance, however, the difficulties mount because an abusive hero better fit the times. I just completed my second book, a Victorian historical, where friendship between the protagonists is key to the story. True friendship between the sexes almost never happened in their world, and yet this is what today's women love to read. It was very difficult to write because there is a fine line between writing historically accurate character portrayals and heroes and heroines we want to read about and grow to love. Perhaps when the Alpha hero of historical romance emerged on the scene in the 1970s many of today's romance readers were young and accepting - I was a teenager and easily impressionable. Now I'm 35 and I don't want to read about them. My grandmother adored the cool, dark, mysterious, wealthy Harlequin Alphas and Cartland rakes. Domineering men were of her time. I, however, will take the modern, gently flawed, outwardly feeling, friendly and sometimes tearful hero over one of them any day."

Cassandra Speaks:
It seems that every few months, I pick up a newspaper and read about the acquisition of a publishing house by a media conglomerate. In the past several months, we have seen Viacom buy Simon and Schuster (Pocket Books), and the German company Bertelsmann, which already owned Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, buy Random House (Fawcett, Ivy, Ballentine). Before that, there was the merger of Penguin and Putnam, combining Berkley, Jove, Onyx, Signet, and Topaz.

I was at a favorite bookstore the other day - a Barnes & Noble with a very nice and very large romance section. It's rather far away, so I don't get there often, and I thought maybe they had moved the romance section because I couldn't find it. Well, it was there, but instead of taking up an entire line of bookcases, it took up only a partial line of bookcases. Suddenly, all the series romances they carried going back several months, were not there. In fact, there were no series romances to be found at all.

I asked the manager what had happened, and she said they didn't carry series romance anymore - not new, not old. . . not at all. When asked why, she said most people bought them through the Harlequin/Silhouette clubs. That was a surprise to me because whenever I go to Target, their non-series romance section seems to be dwindling while the series section remains. What could be going on?

We live in a world of immediate expectations - no one seems to plan for the long term any longer. In Hollywood, if a movie doesn't make most of its earnings in the first two weeks, it's deemed a failure. Movies are geared toward young men 18 - 24, and for foreign markets. That's why action sells. "High-concept" is the buzz word. If movies are made for young men and foreign markets where English is not the language spoken, is it any wonder that story is not the prime objective? Of course, the public is fickle, and a little action is no longer enough. Technology makes special effects the star of many movies today, and as technology gets better, special effects become more special, and more expensive.

The big action stars of today earn huge salaries. Combine those salaries with the cost of special effects, and the marketing blitzkreigs producers use to make that money in the first two weeks, and you've got yourself a $100,000,000 movie. It'll sell to young men and overseas for now, but what to do when Arnold and Sylvester and Steven Segal and Jean Claude fail to bring in those bucks as they once did? BTW, this is already happening.

One option would be for producers to consider that maybe movie-goers might actually enjoy a story, and could do without a high body count. Another option is to up the ante - more action, more bodies, more special effects. And, why not take actors who can act, and put them in these movies?

Which option do you think they choose? The latter, of course, which is eventually doomed. Eventually there will be a 90-minute-long movie with nothing but action sequences and no plot whatsoever. No one over 24 will even bother going to the movies.

Then there's television, where immediate expectations have more immediate results. In the old days, studios ordered up at least 13 episodes of a new series. If a show was intriguing but didn't earn ratings, the networks would coddle it, help it along until it found its niche. M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere were shows that took awhile to grow on us, but when they did, they were shows of quality. Many shows today are given six-episode orders, or less, and are cancelled within weeks of their premiere. Where there used to be one set of mid-season replacements, now there are often two, or more. And, a show might have good ratings, but the "wrong market", and be cancelled. For instance, the target market on television is the urban male, 18 - 49. While not a fan of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, I understand this show had strong ratings, but in the wrong market. Urban males aged 18 - 49 didn't watch this show, and it was cancelled.

What has any of this to do with romance reading? I think immediate expectations are going to hurt the genre; indeed, I think they already have.

We've talked before about how there are fewer book distributors out there, and how there are fewer book stores as well. In Dallas, Barnes & Noble and Borders rule. When Borders moved in, many B. Dalton's, which was romance-friendly, moved out. Both stores are owned by the same company. Bookstop, which offers discounts on all their books, is being replaced by Barnes & Noble. These two stores, also owned by the same parent company, were effectually competing with each other. Rather than cannibalize profits, the parent company is going with the more upscale store, the one without discounts. As for the smaller independent bookstore, you can be sure it feels the crunch, and only those in outlying suburban areas are surviving for now.

So now we have fewer distributors, fewer bookstores, and fewer publishers. As companies become larger, the bottom line becomes evermore important. The art of writing a book becomes the business of selling books - that's why the Paula Barbieri's get million-dollar book deals, even though many of these tell-all books are failures. And the self fulfilling prophecy becomes fulfilled. By the end of the year there will be no more Loveswepts being published by BDD. By the end of the year the Regency Romance market will lose one of its three publishers as Fawcett ceases publishing this sub-genre. Just my luck that I've "found" Regencies at this particular point in time. Reminds me of "finding" Highlander: The Series the year before they cancelled the show.

Here's an example: if a distributor decides to no longer provide a certain line or type of romance to its client bookstores, grocery stores, discount stores and newsstands, those books disappear from the shelves. When there were many distributors, that wasn't a problem, because you could find the books elsewhere. Not that there are just a handful, if you can't find the books here, you'll have no better luck finding them there. If you can't find a book by publisher X's Lovey-Dovey line on your shelves, you can't buy it. Publisher X looks at sales figures, sees that Lovey-Dovies aren't selling, and decides to cancel the line. In the "old days," perhaps, Publisher X might try something to change this, but now that it is part of a much larger corporate entity, immediacy is the key. Short term thinking rules. And while I know nothing of the particulars behind the cancellation of the Loveswept line and Fawcett Regencies, it is telling that their parent companies, BDD and Random House, were part of mergers recently.

When I look at our list of romance releases every month, I see more and more reissues by lead authors, leaving less room for newer authors. It stands to reason that if new authors aren't being published in the numbers they once were, it'll be more and more difficult to discover the stars of tomorrow. While some publishers are working to prevent this, my gut tells me that expectations for immediacy are working to prevent this. Yes, new romance publishers are entering the scene, but my fear is that by the time they gain more than a foothold, the larger players will have cooked the goose that laid the golden egg rather than letting it produce more gold.

My nightmare is to walk into a bookstore and have the romance section be nothing more than the back lists of lead authors on one end and series romances on the other. I know that's farfetched and unlikely, but I worry about it. One reason it is unlikely is the power of the Internet. Amazon.com, for example, is a wonderful source for finding romances your local bookstore no longer carries and will no longer order for you - I'm not talking about used books here, although they search for them too, but used sales are meaningless to publishers. I'm talking about six-month old Harlequin Historicals or year-old Avon's that you can buy new through their web site. Then too, I believe the power of on-line recommendations will come to mean more as more and more people travel the cyber-highway. I can envision the day when romances have a much longer shelf life than they do now, based on the power of the Internet. But, as of today, those people actually on-line is relatively small.

Some publishers seem committed to romance - Pocket Books' upcoming Sonnet line purportedly will grow historical romance authors who are ready to break out of the mid-list, but who will take their places? Kensington (Zebra), the largest privately held publisher, has made many innovations in the genre. But while they have contracted with some super stars in the genre (Bertrice Small, Anne Stuart) and are growing some authors nicely (Stella Cameron, for example), they face skepticism among romance readers for past failures.

It may well be up to the newer publishers on the scene, including e-publishers, to take up the slack. But realize this - what you see on the shelf this month, was in the planning stages long ago. It might have been contracted for a year or more ago. There may come a time when romance has to, in essence, start over again.

What do you think?

The Message Board:
It's time to post to the message board again. Here are the questions I'd like you to consider responding to:

What do you do/read to get out of a romance reading slump?

Conversely, what do you read after you've read a fabulous romance by which everything else pales in comparison?

Do you judge books against the marketplace or against the author's other books, or a combination?

How many Desert Isle Keepers do you read in a normal year?

How big is your TBR (to be read) pile?

Do you have a TBB (to be bought) list? If yes, how many titles are on it?

Are you a newbie or a longtime reader? How long have you been reading romance?

What was the romance you fell in love with? Was it the first romance you read? If not, explain.

Pick the hero you'd like to be on a deserted isle with. Oh, and, btw, you're a heroine. You can mix and match, but please share your hero and heroine with us, and why you chose them.

Remember that for each survey question listed above, I've set up a section on the message board. Just click on each question, make your response, then move on to the next.

Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know - Which heroes came close to crossing that thin line between Alpha hero and Alpha heel? Which crossed the line? Under what circumstances do you forgive the ultra-alpha hero who is abusive? Are you like me and need to see that the heroine sees his humanity or is his background sufficient? What is the worst thing a hero you came to love did to the heroine? Please comment as well on Adele's segment whether you agree or disagree.

Cassandra Speaks - Am I being overly alarmist? Do you think immediate expectations will hurt the genre now that so many publishers have been gobbled up by larger media conglomerates? How does the romance section look in your local bookstores/discount stores? What can we as readers do?

Until next time, TTFN, Laurie Likes Books
In conjunction with Adele Ashworth

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