Thursday, December 3, 2009

Not That Anyone Asked Me, But ...

What's up with Alan Elsner? He's the writer (whom I've never heard of, but I guess I shouldn't be bitchy) who dissed romance novels on the basis of a sample of unknown size and variation. (One suspects from his reaction, though, that however many romances he read, a majority had the word "billionaire" in the title.) (Now, I told myself not to be bitchy...)

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 porn, excuse me, erotica.  Good erotica is like good romance in this respect:  It's all about what's in the head.  If I read a romance novel where the protagonists are experiencing all the complicated and confused thoughts and feelings aroused by their romantic relationship, I'm right there with them, falling in love all over again.

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 satisfied (*cough*) confident that her hero and heroine have a great sexual relationship.  If they have fallen in love as well, mazel tov.  But I don't feel like I've read much about their experience of falling in love, and I don't miss it.

(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 lurv love, 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.
(If you don't know the Glenda Sanders books, I blogged about them over at Monkey Bear Reviews.)

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 too hard, wait, too easy to do!!) is the real romance novelist among us.  Either way, I have the same response to him:

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?



  1. I enjoyed your rant Magdalene!
    I must admit I think I am over used to the derogatory comments regarding the genre in general media, that it sort of went past me. Just had a giggle and a snort at the he can't write them, so then dissed authors that did.
    Also the love takes place in the mind bit.. had me snorting a bit. Cos sex has no place in relationships.
    Would love to know what books he read, but I think you are right on the Billionaires, most non-romance reading people seem to equate romance with Harlequin - Mills and Boon

  2. @boganedie -- Well, that's the problem, isn't it? Dissing romances is a cheap shot for some people, but they so rarely have actually done their homework. If we point out the flaws in their reasoning, we're considered hysterical biddies. We don't want to be defensive, but -- well, he just made me that mad!

  3. I'm resigned to people making derogatory comments about the romance genre, even though it annoys the hell out of me. It's sexist, elitist and representative of so many wrongs in our society.

    Despite the current trend of highlighting "smart" romance authors and readers, I don't see the general perception of the genre changing any time soon. The best we can do is rise above it and be as dismissive of those who ridicule romance novels as they are of those who read and write them.


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