Seriously? You read romance? Why?!?

To be fair, I guess I have all the incredulous feelings whenever someone I know admits to reading James Patterson.  I guess the difference is that I don’t carry my Patterson disdain across his entire genre to make the assumption that anyone reading any suspense novel is obviously reading crap and also delusional.

So, it’s been August for a while (20 days, in fact), but I’m finally getting around to mentioning that August is national Read-a-Romance month (who knew?).  To celebrate, 93 romance authors are writing posts about why romance matters over at readaromancemonth.com.  Some of my favorite posts are by Ruthie Knox (surprise, surprise…), Elizabeth Hoyt, Christina Dodd, Julie James, and Maya Rodale.  After reading those last two posts, I went on a little bit of a book buying spree (oops), but it was worth it.

I love this video, courtesy of Maya Rodale:

As a romance reader, I find these posts incredibly empowering.  If you’ve ever wondered why so many women (and men!) read so many romance novels or if you enjoy romance novels and you’ve despaired at so many people feeling the need not only to look down on your choice of reading material but also to tell you about it, you should check out some of these posts.

It’s national Read-a-Romance month, so go out and read a sex novel!  It’s good for you.

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Blogging and genre – Armchair BEA Day 2

Well, it’s day 2 of Armchair BEA, and today, there are two topics: Blogger Development & Genre Fiction.

I’m certain I’m imposing my own insecurities on the question, but I have to be honest and admit that the very notion of assessing my development as a blogger makes me feel a bit inadequate.  The truth is that I consider this blog to be a hobby, a thing I do because I enjoy it, not because of any external pressure to perform.  Even if no one read this blog, I would still write it.  With that starting position, I feel very little compulsion to promote my blog, and if I drop off the map for three weeks because I’m unbelievably busy, I don’t feel at all bad about it.  That’s not to say that I don’t take this blog seriously — quite the opposite — but I don’t measure success in terms of popularity or marketability.  I have a job, and this blog isn’t it.

That said, I have developed quite a lot over the past year.  For one thing, I’m a better reader than I was.  For another, I’m a better writer.  Best of all, this past year of blogging has helped me to chip away at my habitual reserve, to make some friends (never easy for me to do), to say some true things and put them out there for all the world to see (should the world go out of its way to find my little corner of unreserve…), to try new things.  It has been a fantastic year, but these successes can be measured only on my peculiar scale.

Abrupt subject change: I’m all about genre fiction!  To be honest, I think all fiction can easily be categorized as genre fiction of some sort or other.  I know folk have a strong inclination to distinguish literary fiction from the sordid genre type, but this inclination seems like misplaced snobbery to me.  All fiction is the work of scribbling human hands to explain some part of the human experience.  Maybe that explanation comes in the form of alien planets or vampire stalkers or amorous dukes and barmaids or neurotic narrators recounting their entire misspent lives; the connecting thread running through each of those stories is the humanity of their authors.  (In case you’re curious, I did just lump Children of the MindTwilightAny Duchess Will Do, and In Search of Lost Time into one category, Aristotle be damned.)

Some authors undoubtedly write better than others, some come closer to achieving a real art, some have more skill at using the lies of story and narrative to tell a truth about who we are as humans, but when we assign categories to writers, we hobble ourselves as readers and limit the artistic reach of those writers.  (We also inflate the egos of those writers and critics fortunate enough to be the gatekeepers of literary quality.)

I suppose I should scramble down from my soap box now and talk about the kind of stories I most want to read.

I’ve always been a sucker for a good story.  When I was in elementary school and junior high, I read whatever I could get my hands on: library books, school books, my mother’s books, etc.  I didn’t precisely have a favorite genre because I was just obsessed with the written word and all the knowledge it contained.  The first book I read that truly took my breath away was Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming.  In junior high, I discovered fantasy books, and I read The Hobbit and tried to read The Lord of the Rings (I didn’t succeed in reading it until I was 20 and had achieved something like patience); I read Terry Brooks and Piers Anthony, and a bunch of truly terrible Dragonlance books.  Then I read Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series (books 1-4) and W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neil Gear’s The First North Americans Series.  Then I read Les Miserables and discovered that what I liked most in all those stories I’d read was any inkling of the redemptive power of love.  Strange as it might be, it was a short skip for me from Les Miserables to romance novels, because that’s where all the love stories hide.

These days, I read romance novels almost exclusively.  Some of them are terrible, and some of them are incandescently wonderful.  I highly recommend each of the following.

Is reality beautiful, or is it just too real?

Y’all know how I feel about romance novels (unless you’re new to this blog and have no idea, in which case, let me tell you: when they are done well, I love them, and when they are done poorly, I hate them with the burning intensity of a thousand suns; in other words, I have a fitting passion for the romance genre), but there are some aspects common to most romance novels that just burn my butt.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the way breasts are handled (ahem) in romance novels.  I think it’s still accurate to say that most readers of romance novels are women.  Most women have breasts.  Why, then, do authors need to describe breasts in minute detail?  There is some variation of description, sure; sometimes the breasts in question are ‘coral tipped globes’ and sometimes they are ‘creamy orbs,’ but they are almost always “perfectly formed” or otherwise “perfect.”  Just once I would like to read a romance novel that describes the heroine’s breasts as “uneven” or “lopsided” or ” a bit droopy.”  Honestly, if we must describe breasts, can’t we at least be realistic about the business?  It’s not as though it actually matters what the breasts look like, anyway.  Men are going to look regardless.

An engraving by W. Ridgway (published in 1878) after Daniel Huntington’s 1868 painting ”Philosophy and Christian Art’,’ U.S. public domain

I went on a bit of a reading binge this week and plowed through Tessa Dare’s Twice Temped by a Rogue, Courtney Milan’s Unveiled, Unlocked, Unclaimed and Unraveled and Miranda Neville’s The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton.  5 of those 6 books use the word “perfect” or “perfection” in describing either the whole of the heroine’s bosom or some aspect of her bosom (her skin, her nipples, etc.).

I know… I’m being silly.  I enjoyed all six books immensely – those three authors represent some of the best talent in the romance genre today – but by the time I got to the sixth book (The Amorous Education), I found myself distracted by the heroine’s “well-shaped and pert, and practically perfect” breasts.  I longed for both variety and reality.

So this is my question: can reality be beautiful?  There’s the adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but that beholder’s eye is shaped by her culture.  Our culture celebrates artificial beauty: the shellac of makeup, the pastiche of Photoshop.  Women are bombarded with images of ideal beauty, most of which are manufactured in some way.

The romance novels that I enjoy are ones that celebrate women, that give commentary on some of the issues that are of import to women, that celebrate an active and confident sexuality, that break down double standards, that promote healthy relationships with an even balance of power, that are, at their core, rather feminist when you get right down to it.  Is it too pie-in-the-sky for me to hope to encounter, at some point, a book that, in addition to all of these traits, embraces a tad more realism in its physical descriptions (or, better: leaves off the detailed breasty descriptions altogether.  If I need to know what a breast looks like, I can just look down.)?  Does anyone have a good theory as to why there are so many detailed descriptions of lady parts (breasty and otherwise) in books primarily marketed to women?

This week in reading

Cover image, To Seduce a Sinner by Elizabeth Hoyt

I mentioned in my last reading post that I have been somewhat obsessed with Elizabeth Hoyt of late.  After finishing the Prince series, I snatched up books 2-4 (not sure why I didn’t grab book 1… perhaps the blurb didn’t quite capture my attention) of the Legend of the Four Soldiers series to read on my road trip (I didn’t drive, somewhat obviously).  Unlike the Prince books, these four books are closely knit together by the harrowing event that connects all four of the male characters and by the reading, translating, transcribing, and binding of a book of fairy tales (the Legend of the Four Soldiers), all of which connects each of the female characters.  In addition, each book weaves the story of its hero and heroine with one of the legends from the book of fairy tales.  The result is an interesting, multifaceted series that is superbly constructed.  Elizabeth Hoyt could write anything, I’m convinced, but I’m so glad that she devotes her considerable skills to the romance genre.  There are so many terrible romance novels out there in the world, and it’s fantastic to be able to read a book from my favorite (definitely guilty pleasure) genre and know that I’m actually reading a genuinely good book.  At some point, I’ll pick up the first book in the series so I can have a better understanding of how it all begins, but these books really do stand alone quite well, despite all the interweaving legends and the overarching plot line.

To Seduce a Sinner tells the story of two believable, messed-up people who marry fairly early in the book and then muddle through their relationship.  There is a whole sub-genre of romance novels devoted to the notion of marrying a stranger (not sure what that says about the women who read them, but I can’t judge: I have some of those books myself), and most of them are either creepy or lame.  This book manages to be neither because it relies on the strength of its characters.  What does it mean to trust someone (or, more importantly, to trust yourself)?  How do you build trust?  What is the difference between a person’s true self and the self he/she presents to the world?  These are not the sorts of questions one would expect to encounter in a romance novel, but this one is full of the meat of interpersonal relationships and all their messy glory.  As an added bonus, the secondary characters are fabulous as well.

Cover image, To Beguile a Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt

This book, already rich with interesting characters, clever plot points, well-written children, and POV from multiple characters and bolstered by a fascinating legend, draws upon the familiar beauty and the beast story to great effect.  I’ve always had a soft spot for beauty and the beast stories.  They represent women rather well, right?  The beauty, far from being repulsed by the beast, nurtures and heals him, restoring him to his proper self.  That is a very positive representation of the feminine.  This book merges certain qualities of the beauty and the beast archetypes into fully fleshed characters whose backgrounds and motivations go far beyond what one would expect from a retelling of a popular fairy tale.

Cover image, To Desire a Devil by Elizabeth Hoyt

Back story… it can be necessary to a book, especially one that references a past event in its major plot, but it’s very difficult to manage.  Isn’t it annoying to read a book that spends more time catching you up to the characters than it does advancing their story (the one you’re actually interested in reading)?  My favorite thing about To Desire a Devil is that the back story is delivered in such a clever way.  The other two books in the series delve a bit into the past – that harrowing event that I mentioned in my discussion of To Seduce a Sinner – but the events of the past are more important to the development of the hero’s character in To Desire a Devil, so there’s even more of a need to share the events that helped shape him into the man he is when the heroine meets him.  Hoyt manages it in a truly lovely way through believable dialogue delivered here and there throughout the book.  Think how lame it could have been: Reynaud thought back to his time as a captive – how horrifying it was.  He shuddered, thinking about the frigid winter, the lack of food, the fear of imminent and ignoble death.  That’s how most romance authors would have handled that bit of exposition, but Hoyt lets Reynaud tell Beatrice, the heroine, and you the reader what he experienced during his seven years of captivity.  What is particularly interesting is that his telling of the tale is absolutely believable coming from a male.  There’s no mention of feelings, no shuddering in horror, no dwelling on how awful it was.  Instead, he tells just the facts and leaves it to Beatrice and the reader to figure out (because women must) what the emotional cost of all of that horror must have been.  Brilliant.

 So… have I convinced anyone to check out any of these books?