Subtext (Humor & Sexuality)

Issue #40 of Laurie's News & Views


In the midst of writing about love scenes, reader Liana Lariccia wrote a Desert Isle Keeper review of Rejar. After putting her in touch with author Dara Joy, she wrote me about Dara's latest release Tonight or Never, which had been dissed by many readers as too lightweight and full of love scenes to be a great read. An online friend of mine had loved Rejar but seemed embarrassed to admit to it, which seemed to coincide with the snobbery issue we've been discussing in my column. Finally, reader Bevery and I had been discussing love scenes in an e-mail dialogue, and, wouldn't you know it, she started to talk about Dara Joy.

I think this dialogue is an interesting one, and wanted to share it with you, as well as Liana's thoughts on Tonight or Never. I've yet to read any book by Dara Joy other than High Energy, although I've begun Knight of a Trillion Stars, but that's besides the point.

There is more to romance than what is presented at first glance, even when the romance is a humorous or highly sensual one. In fact, an author who skillfully hides sub-text under inventive story-telling is, to me, a highly talented author, and I doff my hat to the JAK's, Garwood's, and Joy's of the world who manage to do this.

Please let me know what you think after you read Beverly's and Liana's comments by e-mailing me. You can write about love scenes, snobbery, or Dara Joy. You can agree or disagree, just share your thoughts.

Beverly Latham (blatham@hop-uky.campus.mci.net) about love scenes in general:
You discussed two extremely interesting and very interrelated issues - love scenes on the first page and by association love scenes early in the story as well as love scenes disappearing, or at least being considerably diminished, in various author's new stories. Funny you should bring these two questions up, because I recently got involved in a discussion with a small group I'm in regarding love scenes or more specifically too much sex in stories. The specific complaint one individual had made was that this one particular book that had been recommended by so many was nothing but sex and therefore very distasteful to her. Since my response is so closely related to what you were talking about, I thought I'd enclose a modified copy of it below.

Hmmm . . . but there's sex and then there's sex. And, speaking purely as a reader here, context does make an enormous difference in whether or not the author's personal style in interweaving those scenes affects my enjoyment of a particular book. Yes, I have run across a few books called romances, and even more than weren't even in the romance genre, that were not much more than technical manuals on the various ways to have intercourse. Notice, I didn't say 'make love' because usually there isn't all that much love involved and very little romance. On a few, I'm not even sure I'd call what they were doing sex . . . those I ran from, far and fast.

OTOH, you bring up an interesting question that has been especially on my mind in the last few years since I rediscovered the romance genre and began a quest of sorts to find authors whom I enjoy on a consistent basis - does the consummation of the physical side of things always have to be the ultimate story-ending goal in order for the story to be a satisfying romance?

One of the things I have noticed about the author's I've discovered recently is that now my most favorite and most eagerly read writers have the couple make love more often, usually many times, during the progression of the romance and usually very early in the plot instead of saving 'the act' until the end. I have to say that personally finding authors who use this apparently drastically altered from what's considered traditional concept appeals to me quite a lot and these kinds of stories are one of the major reasons I did began to actively read romances again after a long dry spell, but more on why in a moment.

There is more to romance than sex. Exactly. Every happily married couple knows this. Every unhappily married couple knows this, also, whether they'll admit it or not. I couldn't agree more and I think this is why stories with the couple sexually active early in the plot line do appeal to me so much nowadays. Just to clarify, I mean when the hero and heroine of a novel are sexually active with each other, not with others. In these stories, sex, better yet making love or, more precisely, intimacy is not the goal of the romance but rather a large part of the development of the characters. I've found I really enjoy this kind of romance. Immensely.

To be perfectly honest, though, I can name on one hand the number of authors I've found who do know how to use this kind of plotting effectively without allowing things to deteriorate into romps in the sheets with no meaning for the characters. Or for the reader, besides titillation, and sometimes that's in doubt. Those authors understand why their characters are already at that intimate point so early in the story and do use it to great advantage, intentionally. With a writer that does understand, this early intimacy reveals quite a lot about the characters. Who they are in the most intimate of one-on-one situations. What they believe about love, marriage, commitment even when they won't voice those things aloud to each other. One of the most striking things I've noticed revealed through this technique, particularly in the historicals but also in contemporaries, are the hero's attitudes towards women in general. How can a reader not fall in love with a true died-in-the-wool medieval alpha male who is the most gentle, compassionate of lovers even before he consciously realizes he's totally in love, absolutely besotted beyond reason, with the heroine? That is a man one can trust and it's also a powerful fantasy for the modern female when one thinks about it.

That character development, dialogue, plot, and conflict and tension are all important is very true and I don't enjoy books in which 'sex' is all there is to the story. If I wanted erotica, I'd read erotica. I don't read romances for erotica. But there is also something to be said for the literal peeling off of emotional layers when the couple become intimate early in a 'romance' which then might go on to have conflict and tension develop due to outside forces affecting them and/or whether or not they realize they do love each other, eventually or already, not over will they or won't they have sex.

So, uh . . . yeah, in answer to the question as to whether there are readers out there who actually enjoy reading this kind of book, one might have noticed that I fall into something of that camp. And yes, I can recommend several romances that fit exactly the early intimacy framework I've referred to above. Now whether or not they'd be like the book mentioned and whether one would like them remains to be seen. It's not just the early intimacy concept, it's also the graphic detail in those intimate scenes that has to be taken into account. One author whom I love to read and that does use this early intimacy plotting method to advance the story is much more graphic in the way she dives into the love scenes. And, boy, does she dive in enthusiastically. Another, who uses the same 'get them together early' style I've come to love and pout when I can't find, simply isn't that graphic and yet her love scenes are sometimes a great deal more steamy than the first ones because of what she does reveal about the characters themselves during them. It just depends on writing style, I guess, or maybe my mood of the moment when reading them. I honestly don't know. Neither one reaches the point of being too graphic for me, but interestingly enough I have wondered at times about the things the more graphic author is revealing about her characters. It does give one pause when the 'early intimacy' technique is working in it's own way to advance the plot and yet reveals something that makes one begin to dislike, or at least seriously doubt, the hero . . .

But, no, that doesn't make someone who doesn't like the style weird. That particular book and possibly that author's writing style simply doesn't appeal to them. It really is that simple and certainly not weird.

Curiously enough because I know your own tastes, the authors I can name on one hand as having mastered this, for me, pleasing style are Julie Garwood and Jayne Ann Krentz (under all AKAs), but the one that initially opened my eyes to it's existence was Dara Joy. I make no claims as to whether or not she is a great writer, but I do enjoy her stories, immensely, and love to reread them. For the stories themselves as much as for the, ahem, good stuff. Which is more than I can say about a lot of writers out there, let me tell you. It's not that there aren't great writers and good stories out there, it's how much I really do enjoy this early and consistent intimacy style that makes these writer's stand out. Before reading Knight of a Trillion Stars, I'd only read series and category romances and I have to admit I'd become jaded and relatively fed-up with them. Just the thought of taking the time to read a longer romance that took forever to get the couple together just didn't appeal to me in any way shape form or fashion at that point in my life. And then there was dealing with the interminable and internal angst involved in most of those types of stories. Not to mention the reputation the larger, lurid-covered romances had for being 'sleazy' . . . yes, I know I was stereo-typing but I also now know that that reputation is based on the styles of a relatively small number of authors in the genre as well as narrow-mindedness of some publishers . . .

Anyway, with that kind of background, you might ask how in the world I stumbled across KOATS? Well, I knew I wanted something different to read, romance-wise, and started searching but I was extremely picky also. I stumbled across a copy of Romantic Times at a bookstore and read the review of KOATS in it. I could not get the review out of my head, primarily because of the fantasy element referred to in the story - not the rating. I don't even remember the rating. I'm a sucker for fantasy in romances, what can I say. I finally succumbed and read the book. I loved it. The greatest I've ever read? Not by a long shot but it was the most entertaining thing I'd run across in years in the romance genre. You have to understand, however, that I despise tear-jerkers with a passion, adore humor and crave an element of fantasy . . . and then there's the great 'real' love scenes scattered throughout . . . which just about sums up the style I'm referring to.

The absolute eye-opener, however, in my renewed search for other similar books was the element of early intimacy which I quickly realized was not a new norm for the romance genre. Yes, there are other authors out there that do get the couple together early and keep them that way at least part of the time, but the three I've mentioned are the only ones I've personally run across that do it (interpret that it any way you want) consistently throughout the story and make their sexual relationship an integral part of the developing romance between the pair. Once I found Garwood and Quick, I knew I wasn't imagining feeling as if other romances left half the story untold for me.

Seriously, I know there are those that think these particular authors aren't deep and involving, that they use external conflict too much, that they use a formula instead of being imaginative, but sometimes I do wonder if it's more that most readers seem uncomfortable with this style of early intimacy. It can sometimes seemed forced, particularly in historicals where it's almost a must for them to be married first. I, OTOH, am now more irritated and dissatisfied when the romance drags on without the early and consistent closeness between the two characters, physical or otherwise. For instance, I'll just be getting comfortable with the relationship in most romances and suddenly hit that old happily-ever-after ending. Or have to wait entirely too long for any HEA intimacy at all and get disinterested. Don't get me wrong, I adore HEA, I must have HEA, I just also seem to love a little 'happily' all along in the story in the first place and this not the same thing as simply having more sex scenes in a book.

Am I alone in this? I don't think so due to the popularity of these specific authors, but I also know this is an area where readers do vary widely in their tastes. If there are any other readers that feel the way I do out there, I'll love to hear about them and especially if they've found any other authors that fit the style I'm talking about. I'm starving here. Humor and fantasy, optional but desired.

Well, why are my letters to you some of the longest I write? I'm not sure whether you should feel honored or fearful. Oh, and a PS: If you're on a JAK kick, please be sure to read Perfect Partners. I have to say her contemporaries are not my favorites, either, but this one I loved. It's both hilariously funny and completely endearing in spots. And talk about sensual . . .

LLB responds: It depends on the author when it comes to love scenes for me. Some authors seem to write plot simply as a means to string sex scenes (not love scenes) together. There are other authors who do it just right, and some authors from whom I want more.

I picked up the new Garwood last night and discovered there is one very short love scene in it. When I compare it against some of my favorites by her, it comes up wanting. I don't require lots of love scenes, but if an author can write fabulous ones that don't seem gratuitous, she should write them!

I would like you to try to find The Devil Earl and The Vicar's Daughter by Deborah Simmons as well as Julia Quinn's Splendid (the latter is just about to go out of print). While Deb does it better than anyone but Garwood, I think these three books would suit you. To me, Simmons is on a par with Quick, but she's an HH author and not well known.

I've yet to read more by Joy than High Energy, although I have the rest of her books. I look forward to getting to them. Some readers look their nose down on readers like you and I who appreciate the lighter side of romance. Must everything be angst? Not that I don't love a good tear-jerker, but the sheer entertainment value of a Garwood, Quick, Joy, Simmons or Quinn can be delightful.

Beverly: . . .It's also strange when an otherwise relatively good author has love scenes stuck oddly in an otherwise nicely flowing storyline, apparently just for the sake of having them in there. It can go both ways.

. . . (regarding Julie Garwood's Come the Spring and it's lack of love scenes) That is rather odd for her. You're right, I do hope this isn't a pattern developing.

I have all of Julia Quinn's books, I think, including Splendid. I like her. Very much. My favorite of hers was Dancing at Midnight. I don't think I've ever read anything by Deborah Simmons, however. I'll check her out.

It is absolutely amazing how drastically polar everyone seems to be about Dara Joy. I have friends who gobble her books up at the same time they're talking about her not being that good a writer. I mean, it's weird when one thinks about it. I can't figure out if they're attempting to justify having a thoroughly enjoyable read or simply in awe of her imagination, technical aspects of writing aside. The woman certainly has a vivid imagination.

LLB: I fully agree w/you about Dara's imagination. I leafed through KOATS this weekend and wondered where she gets her ideas. Also, I think I must have had your comments in mind when I wrote my current column, about snobbery among readers. For some reason, admitting to enjoying Dara Joy is difficult for some. A friend of mine who, at the time, raved about Rejar was later mortified, she told me, that she loved the book. The same can be said, I think, about the mixed reviews for her current book. I have one reader who seems to see through all the "stuff" and gets to the heart of Dara's work, which is amazingly complex.

Beverly about Dara Joy and sub-text: Yeah, this is true. Very true. In my very limited literary opinion, at least compared to some comments I've read . . . ahem . . . that is exactly one of the major things that does strike me about Dara Joy's work. Taken at face value, some of it reads like the most hilarious, and definitely fluffy appearing, farce, in the strictest sense of the term. I can see where individuals used to, and expecting, 'deep' stuff in any genre would immediately categorize her writing as mind candy, for various reasons, but the love scenes would without a doubt be at the head of their list. And yet . . . her stories have a staying power in my head that is incredible and every single time I go back to one of them, I find something new that jumps out at me. That is not light and fluffy, IMHO. That is multi-layered. What people don't seem to realize, or want to admit, is that farce, if she is at all doing farce in the first place, is a valid literary style, or at least, a valid theatrical style, which may be where some of the polarization comes in because her stories are extremely visual in nature. Then there is the other suspicion I can't get out of my head whenever I read one of her stories, and which very much goes along with the style of farce . . . many times I do get the distinct impression she is making very subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, fun of the romance genre itself, not as a attacker attempting to put it down, but as a lover trying to show the incongruities that make it work so well as a genre in the first place. I remember reading KOATS the first time and immediately being stuck with how tongue-in-cheek her writing style seemed, at the same time noticing some very deep undercurrents to the characters as well how vivid the story was all the way around. That impression continues to this day with almost every single one of her stories. I suppose, farce or not, being able to make fun of oneself is the essense of true humor but sometimes it isn't so well received . . . which would explain the intense reactions her stories generate both with readers and writers. Ahem. But then I'll wonder what the devil do I know and decide I could be very wrong about all that heavy thinking on my own part and at that point I'll simply toss all those lofty opinions out of my head and settle back to enjoy a good story. Which in the end, is what it's all about, isn't it?

Beverly about snobbery: Quoting from Issue #39: "I try to keep my ears open in bookstores and in various locales on the 'Net, and one thing I've determined is many on-line readers have more sophisticated tastes in romance reading than I have. It seems to me that there are levels of, for want of a better word, snobbery, among romance readers."

I wanted to scream "Stop saying that!" when I read you refer to your tastes in reading as less sophisticated than others, but then told myself "Chill, Bev, and think about what she's really saying here." That instruction given, I immediately looked up 'snob' in the dictionary as a calming tactic and was honestly surprised, although not necessarily calmed all that much.

From Mirriam-Webster's: snob (noun) [origin unknown] First appeared 1781 1 British : COBBLER
2 : one who blatantly imitates, fawningly admires, or vulgarly seeks association with those regarded as social superiors
3 a : one who tends to rebuff, avoid, or ignore those regarded as inferior
b : one who has an offensive air of superiority in matters of knowledge or taste

Hmmm . . . this is apparently one of those words which I am guilty of using without conscious thought about what is really being said, because the first thing that jumped out at me from the definition was that snobbery is an attempt, not just to put down others as is usually implied or understood, but more importantly to elevate the 'snob' to a higher social status. Applied in this case, it could be considered genre-bashing from within the genre, any genre, in an attempt to have the form more widely accepted or, more personally, as a way to justify the enjoyment of anything from within the genre at all. If so, then it's a heavy, and extremely serious, concept all the way around, but especially in a genre that developed in the first place out of women's personal needs to tell their own style of stories . . . in the face of quite a bit of snobbery, then and now.

"I think that makes me different from many readers, but my sense is that there are many readers who read romance for the same reason as I. I'd like to hear from you on subtle snobbery, and what you look for in a romance. Have you been a snob? Are you a snob? It's okay to admit it; there are worse things to be a snob about! Do you share my peasant tastes for pure entertainment?"

And what the heck is wrong with pure entertainment?!? And another thing, we peasants are what made this country great, ya know . . . grrrr . . .

Okay, let me chill again and approach this from another angle. Going back to snobbery, there isn't anything wrong with wanting to better oneself. Or being enthusiastic about doing so . . . within limits. In fact, growth and change are one of the signs of life. Show me an individual who is no longer growing or changing and I'll show you someone who is already dead, spiritually if not physically. So, yes, you're absolutely right, at any one point in our lives, I'd guess we all become at least partial snobs, one way or another, when we discover something that we admire and attempt to become more like it and think everyone should feel the same way. Whatever it is, be it animal, mineral or vegetable. When I ask my husband how he can possibly watch and enjoy what I perceive as the violence of football, I suppose there is a great deal of snobbery inherent in that honestly sincere and humble question. However, true, unadulterated snobbery carries trying to better oneself that one step farther into attempting to either put down others who don't share those same goals or attempting to impose those goals on others, which is much worse.

I can read for information, and even for enlightenment, but when I Read, i.e. curl up with a book and shut out the rest of the world, then it's for personal entertainment purposes. I have to believe that is true of everyone who curls up with a book, good, bad or otherwise, even if it's the dictionary! In the purest sense, isn't that exactly what we're discussing here -- the ability to disagree, agreeably, over what constitutes an entertaining Read? Which in turn goes back to why we Read in first place. Just because something is simply enjoyable, and nothing else, doesn't make it wrong . . . or unsophisticated . . . or uneducated . . . or poor quality. It makes it fun, pure and simple.

Or it is that simple? On the grand, galactic scale, my choice in Reading material has no bearing on anything important. It's not going to stop or start a war, or feed the hungry, or change the environment for good or bad. However, there have been times in my own life when, on a personal scale, Reading has keep me sane. You tell me, is that entertainment, enlightenment, or . . . simply survival? And which is more important?

So, yes, your comment that you Read purely for entertainment does strike a personal nerve when talking about snobbery regarding Reading choices. A very sensitive nerve because I've always preferred Reading to other forms of entertainment. On the surface, a highly commendable activity . . . except when those 'snobbish' others in my life stick their singular and collective noses into what I'm doing and begin passing judgements on the validity of my choices. Subtle, my eye! What is it about the human search for entertainment that brings out the snob in all of us so strongly, be it literature, the arts, sports or whatever we're talking about and even among individuals who enjoy the same activity?

This is where all these discussions from genre-bashing right down to whether a particular scene is acceptable or not seem to run together and come back to respect. IMHO, this isn't just about whether something is technically good writing, accurate historically, politically correct or any of the other numerous individual elements that we could focus on. Or even whether something is true literature in the eyes of everyone. Or anyone. It's certainly not about changing our 'standards' to become acceptable to that wider audience. It's about respecting ourselves in the first place, individually and collectively.

Does this mean I think romance as a genre shouldn't strive to be better? Certainly not, at least, from the writing end of the business. Just because I enjoy something for pure entertainment value does not mean my brain dies and I automatically stop recognizing bad writing, atrocious editing, or horrible anything else, when I see it. Writers, all writers, should respect themselves and the reader and strive to be the best that they can at their craft, always working to improve their technical skills and storytelling techniques. This isn't about writing, though, it's about Reading and no matter what the standards of measurement are, there will always be trash to wade through. One person's trash can be another's gold-mine. Sometimes one has to wade through a awful lot of trash to find true gems in any artform and in life in general. Just look through the local bookstores in the non-fiction and therefore more serious sections and tell me you don't find trash. Everywhere. However, even what's considered trash to one generation can surprise the experts over time, so one never knows . . .

I always tell my kids when they become determined to argue over something that only they see as earth-shatteringly major, "The difference between respecting each other's opinions and expecting the other to change their mind to agree with you is the dividing line between peaceful co-existence and all-out war."

Or like my father always told me, and I have a sneaking suspicion he purloined the thought if not the actual quote from someone or something famous, "This is America and I'll defend to the death your right to your own opinion . . . even if it is different from mine and therefore wrong."

Liana Lariccia (omni@total.net) about Tonight or Never:
When I read the first 70 pages of the book, I thought it was light-weight. To tell you the truth I put the book down for a few days. However, when I got to the place when they have sex for the first and second time, I realized what the story was really about. It was about a man who is no longer using his body as a tool for survival. And because he is a man with an extreme sexual drive and vast experience, the sex is very compelling. The only thing is that you can't tell this in the beginning.

In retrospect, when I look back to the book, it's as if Dara was torn between giving it a light comedy or serious genre (Ex: J. Garwood vs. Judith McNaught). She ended-up by doing both by hiding the serious with the comical. Maybe she was afraid to make it too much like Rejar. Needless to say, this would probably be the only flaw, if, a flaw it is.

Once again, beneath the formidably funny characters and the contagious humour, Dara Joy succeeded in giving her story that serious edge, the one that will differentiate it from the more trivial and common historical romances, the story where every reader will find his own truth, as I have. If you pick up this Dara Joy book, and I suggest you do, read between the lines; you'll quickly realize there are more than just words.

Issue #40 of Laurie's News & Views
Find links to Dara Joy interviews and reviews from Lianna's Desert Isle Keeper Review of Rejar

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