Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fusion in Romance Fiction

I (finally) finished R. Lee Smith's Heat, an immense book (really: 500+ pages or longer -- hard to gauge on the Kindle, but it's a nearly 1 MB download) and one that's hard to categorize.

Or rather, Heat is easy to categorize...several times over.

First of all, I heard about it at Dear Author, where January's review used the words, "the best independently published book I have read, and one of the best books I have read in a long while."

Hey, I was sold. And she's right--it's very well written and hard to put down. (Although I did skim the final three chapters, which could have been tightened by an editor.)

What I can't do is easily assign it a label so another reader would be able to say, "Ooh, erotic Sci Fi -- I love those books," or "Speculative police procedural -- sounds like fun."

The problem is, there are too many labels, and they all apply. Here's a partial list of genres that Heat falls into:
  1. Science fiction. That's a no-brainer. The heroes are three-toed aliens from the planet Jota with claws on their hands and feet; you don't get characters like that from anything but SF.
  2. Romance. If the definition of a romance novel is that the development of a love relationship between (at least) two characters culminating in a happy ending, then Heat is two romance novels: both couples get their own HEA.
  3. Erotica. Lots of explicit sex, most of it highly relevant to the plot and/or characters, some of it objectionable (if non-consensual sex bothers you), some of it resulting from a long, slow build-up of sexual tension. Heck, there's even some (kinda sorta) f/f action, although I wouldn't suggest anyone buy Heat for those scenes.
  4. Police procedural. Not the best aspect of the book, but it's undeniable that the elements are there: a law enforcement officer is charged with apprehending a criminal whose whereabouts and activities are hard to track.
  5. Morality tale. I found myself musing pretty seriously about oh, say, deer hunting (which is big in my literal corner of the woods), specifically about how human hunters think about their lower-order prey. I also wondered about the wages of environmental degradation (a sin of sorts), what constitutes an "innocent victim," and what the appropriate punishment should be for the criminal in the book. And that's all without getting to the non-consensual sex, overtones of slavery & cruelty, Stockholm Syndrome, and so forth.
Would I recommend Heat to someone? Maybe. I certainly enjoyed it. I also admire it a lot. It's well-written, and while that's not a reason to read any single book, it's a quality we take for granted until it's not there. Heat is wonderfully creative; the title refers, variously, to a biological condition experienced by Jotan males that allows/requires them to mate in a particularly violent fashion; to thermal energy; to sexual tension; and to the 90-dog-days-of-summer that Oregon (!) suffers in a vaguely futuristic United States. (Hard to tell what year it is; Law & Order is still playing in constant rotation on basic cable, which in theory suggests the early 21st century, but does anyone believe that L&O won't still be playing in, say, 50 years?)

But even if I recommended Heat, I'd have a hard time summing it up succinctly enough to help another reader make an informed choice.

By contrast, I'm rereading Mercedes Lackey's 500 Kingdoms series: Feminist retelling of fairy tales.

I got Victoria Dahl's Good Girls Don't in the mail today: Single-title contemporary romance.

Someone strongly recommended Fiona Hill's The Country Gentleman: Traditional Regency romance.

See? You know immediately what sort of books those are. But if I say of Heat that it's an erotic science fiction romance, I haven't conveyed the violence, the moral relativism, or the kinky sex. (Frankly, I don't know that it's not also a horror story...)

Fusion is great in food, music, and nuclear physics, but we're not programmed to understand it in Romlandia. Maybe that's true in all popular fiction, or in all fiction, or all writing. I don't know.

It's hard to do books like Heat credit. It succeeds on so many levels that if you like "that sort" of book, you'll love it.

I just wish I had a better way of telling you what sort of book it is.

Oh, wait. I know: It's a good book.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Once again, I've failed at the TBR Challenge. (Sorry, Wendy.) Mostly that's because I'm not reading as much. I started Heat by R. Lee Smith, which had been recommended by Dear Author, but it's a long book, and I don't seem to have the time to devote to reading that I used to, so I haven't come close to finishing it.

But the challenge itself, to read a book in my TBR that was recommended, nearly stymied me. First, I don't make a note of why I've bought a book when I order it. By the time I next look at the book--in molecules or electrons--I have no idea why I own it. In some sense, they've all been recommended by someone, whether it's a friend or a book review.

I did have an obvious choice, though. Shadow Kin by M.J. Scott. A friend strongly recommended this to me, and I started it, got a quarter of the way through and stopped. Not "DNF" stopped, but "good book" stopped. This loops back to the point about not having Heat finished in time for this post -- good books take longer to read. Often because they are longer, but sometimes it's just that quality takes longer to enjoy, absorb, contemplate, assimilate. A bad book, well, a readable-but-still-bad book, can whiz by. Other good books I haven't gotten around to finishing? The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne, Spoiled by the Fuggirls, and The Affair by Lee Child.

No big surprise, but despite reading less I'm still making time for the Interwebs. I loved this gargantuan essay by Maria Bustillos in The Awl in support of romance novels as "the last great bastion of underground writing." I didn't pick it apart bit by bit, but I liked the author's tone and enthusiasm. So I was surprised when people on Twitter complained about Bustillos's claim that "Romance novels are feminist documents." Of course it depends on what you consider a feminist document. Is it one that was crafted in a free and fair environment of equal rights for women? Or is it one that espouses and reflects the feminist doctrine? (Assuming there's a single feminist doctrine that all feminists can agree on -- a big assumption.)

I think the former claim is rather obviously true. Here's a billion-dollar industry where millions of women (and some men) buy books written by women (and some men) and edited by women (and some men) and reviewed by women (and no men that I know of). Okay, so the CEO of Torstar (the corporation that includes Harlequin Enterprises) may not be a woman, but would it matter? He's hardly going to tell the editors and authors at Harlequin to publish anything other than what sells. We know what sells and we know who's buying it. Can anyone with a straight face argue that romance novels are not the product of a completely gynocratic business?

That's the problem, isn't it? If women write what they want to write, edit what they want to edit, and buy what they want to buy (because no one can argue there are too few books in the marketplace for choice), then those books are what women want them to be. And if the resulting books have retrogressive titles like "The Billionaire Sexist Sheik's Patronized Personal Assistant," guess what: women want that. I have a hard time believing that after more than 50 years of Harlequin Romances, the market can be seen as inherently corrupted by The Patriarchy simply because women like to write, and want to read, books that don't espouse a feminist agenda.

Women are sexist. Yup, I said it. Smart women are sexist. In 35 years, the worst sexism I encountered and witnessed was inflicted by women attorneys on other women attorneys. The second worst sexism was by a high-ranking public health official (a woman) against a staffer. I've been taken out to lunch by professional women who assured me they believe in supporting women in the profession, and then turned around and reflexively discriminated against me and other women while favoring men.

I have a theory why this happened, but suffice it to say, I don't think women are completely on board with the feminist agenda. They may know it's the right way to go, and they may say it's the right way to go, but then some guy comes along... Or, in the specific case of romance novels, some hot hero comes along...

So, like it or not, romance novels are feminist documents. Every last one of them. And if their plots and characters are too sexist for your scruples, write better ones. It's one of the great rules: Write what you want to read. That's the beauty of the current publishing situation; self-publishing means you can write what you want and put it out in the marketplace. If what you write isn't what the majority of the book buyers wants to read, you just won't sell as many copies.

If feminism is about equal rights for women, then accept romance fiction as the gynocratic industry it is. Perhaps in a feminist utopia, romance readers will want to read only books that present women as fully-evolved, self-determining paragons of confidence and sexual freedom. But in today's society, fully-evolved women are writing about hot heroes and paragons of confidence and sexual freedom are spending their own money to read about billionaire sexist sheiks (or bossy Dutch doctors). And we're enjoying it.

You can't say you support women's right to choose and then insist that what women freely choose to write and read isn't feminist. It's not like a man is forcing us to read this stuff.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Two-Minute Orgasm in Romance Novels

The numbers vary, but it's widely agreed that women need upwards of 20 minutes to achieve orgasm in a sexual encounter with a man. (Masturbating to orgasm can be much more efficient, taking on average just a few minutes.)

By contrast, men take far less time to reach their climax in a sexual encounter. I heard numbers as low as 3 minutes, but let's just say it's way less time than women take. According to a colleague of mine, his friends had a routine to deal with this: the husband would send his wife up to their bedroom early to "get started" without him. I have no idea if their marriage survived but that approach sure wouldn't cut the mustard in a romance novel.

I'm reading Ava Young's confection of a Victorian romance novel, An Inconvenient Seduction. Absolutely delightful, and pleasantly sprinkled with some plausible Britishisms. But it includes two "quickie" climaxes for the heroine even before the hero gets her horizontal. That got me thinking about the two-minute orgasm for women, even virgins. And that got me thinking about how there are some ludicrous conventions in our genre that NO ONE complains about.

Men are idealized in romance novels, and yet no man writing to complain about romantic fiction ever cites that as a reason to decry the genre. You'd think they'd at least mention it in passing: "Yes, it's smut written by women for women, but what really revolts me is how far off the mark the heroes are. Taller than average, with more hair and more muscles but less of a beer-gut, romance novel heroes ask for directions, listen to their beloveds, and can fuck for 30 minutes without stop, just to ensure that the heroine has her third orgasm. It's grotesque!"

Similarly, while there are copious complaints by readers, reviewers, and pundits about any number of inaccuracies in romance novels, no one seems disturbed by the two-minute virginal orgasm, except to complain about virginal heroines generally. That's because, just like our male counterparts with their 30 minutes of stamina, we see nothing implausible about being able to orgasm in short order. Surely WE all do that in real life, right?

The presumption is that WE are all well-primed for pleasure. WE are the highly-evolved, sexually-adept women who don't need 20 minutes, even with a partner for the first time. WE are the ones taking very little time at all to achieve orgasm with our partners because only ninnies need longer. (Silly cows.) So when romance heroines, even virgins, merely need the hero's fingers in a couple strategic spots, we nod sagaciously and murmur, "Sounds about right."

My question is this: Okay, so WE are all in the top 1 percentile on this chart, and maybe all our friends are too, but aren't there women out there can I put this delicately...need more than a few fingers and a couple minutes? Particularly their first time?

(I won't even discuss women who can't orgasm the first time; they surely don't read romance novels. Probably they read only collections of 19th century sermons on the evils of fornication. And women who can't orgasm except when masturbating? They must not read at all.)

If we acknowledge that some women might fall into the "needing more" category, and if we believe (and we really do) that magic woo-woo sex with the hero is particularly powerful, might we not demonstrate this by having the heroine need a bit more at the beginning, when she and the hero are just starting their romance? (Yes, of course, if they only have sex at the end of the book, or off-stage entirely, then we may safely assume that the sheer fact of falling in love has endowed the heroine with sufficient sexy skills to achieve the speed-gasm.)

That way, we could see what he does and what she does and how they do it to get her to sexual NASCAR-levels of efficiency. Because that's what I'm waiting to read: how the sexually jejune heroine becomes a fine-tuned orgasmic champ. We're treated to all sorts of other "makeover" stories: she learns to dress better, she accomplishes long-strived-for professional success, she finds & falls for her man...but there's no character arc for sex.

Seems a missed opportunity. But I guess it makes sense that none of us is writing about that. Because it's "write what you know" and none of us has ever had that problem. Nope. Not ever.