Elsner's thesis is that because romance novels (and here I actually do have to be bitchy and reiterate that it's his sample of romances we're talking about, not a legitimate sample of romance novels) equate romance with sex, there really is no romance in romance novels, just porn.
Where do I start? Okay, just to get the low hanging fruit out of the way, Elsner admits that he doesn't write sex scenes himself because they're so hard to do. He then criticizes the sex scenes in his sample of romances as being graphic and unrealistic, full of boldly labeled body parts & sex acts, and always culminating in mutual orgasms. (Okay, I kinda agree with him about the mutual orgasms, but it's hardly a concession.) But to call that porn is to totally miss the point of
But in good erotica, it's not just about positions and technique. The author's also conveying the experience -- and believe me, that's hard to do because sexual experiences (especially orgasms) are generally simple and straightforward compared to romantic thoughts and feelings. I actually believe that romance fiction and erotic fiction are mutually exclusive: a book might have both, but if it's really successful as erotica, it's not successful as a romance, and vice versa. Almost all of Emma Holly's books succeed as erotica, but aren't (for me, at least) as successful as romances because the books are about the characters' sexual experiences. And sex does not equal romance. (So there, Elsner.) At the end of Holly's books, I'm
(The exception that proves the rule, by the way, is Holly's Prince of Ice, where I felt it was more about the Xishi's and Cor's romantic relationship than about their sexual relationship. Although of course there was lots of sex. It's still an Emma Holly book!)
Oh, and the really low-hanging fruit in Elsner's essay is his own admission that he can't write a good sex scene, but he can criticize other authors' efforts? Really? Moving on --
I'm sure we all have examples of books Elsner should have read to appreciate the full range of what good romance fiction is about. Here are a couple ideas:
- To counter the notion that romance novels equate romance (falling in love) with sex -- so that if the couple has good sex, they must have fallen in love and all will be happy ever after -- Glenda Sanders' Daddy Darling. In that book, the couple already have great sex and are in love on page one, so clearly the book's over by Elsner's estimation, right? Only, really, what the book is about is the development of their relationship, and that takes a lot of work, particularly by the hero.
- To counter the notion that the protagonists are, to quote Elsner, "sharing fluids" by page 60, LaVyrle Spencer's Morning Glory, where Will and Elly finally consummate their relationship on page 245 -- long after they've shyly fallen in love with each other (but not dared admit it) and gotten married. (Frankly, I would have Elsner read Morning Glory to counter every single bit of his hateful essay -- it's that good -- but that's too easy.)
- To counter his claim that all the couple has to do in a romance novel is, well, couple -- To Love and To Cherish by Patricia Gaffney (the first of the Wyckerley triology). Elsner makes an absurdly arrogant and boastful claim that he doesn't write about sex because he's more interested in
lurvlove, a mental state that competes with all the other vicissitudes of life. Well, Christy and Anne have a whole lot of love to deal with, and a lot of those vicissitudes as well. Oh, and somehow I don't think Elsner would sneer so much at Gaffney's villain.
- To counter the overall claim that romance novels don't have romance in them -- Island Nights by Glenda Sanders. The body of the book may be same old same old to Elsner -- it is a category contemporary, after all -- but if the ending of Island Nights isn't romantic enough for him, then he's a Grinch, and nothing he says about romances is worth worrying about.
In the end, I can't decide -- was Elsner just picking at the same, tired turkey carcass: Romance novels are simplistic, formulaic genre stories that amount to bad porn for women. Or was he trying to boast that he (a man! who writes REAL books! that have LURV in them! but no SEX because that would be
Really? You take a few books out of the library, read them, assume they are representative of the genre, extract what you believe is a solid thesis of what is and what is not in romances, and then publish that thesis as though it's the gospel? Oh, and while you're at it, you slip in some half-baked credential that because you don't write sex scenes but are interested in love (as if they've never happened in the same relationship), you're the true romance novelist?