Why yes. I do have an axe to grind.
No, I haven’t been bitten in the ass by the snake of rejection.
I do not think romance readers are stupid, sexually-frustrated lackwits with nothing better to do.
That being said…
Here it is. Romance fiction is a billion dollar industry. Romance novels are the biggest selling thing in fiction today. So with all this money being spent and all these novels being written, they’ve got to be pretty good. Right?
I, for one, have never trusted the mainstream. Too much like lemmings, and you know what lemmings do, don’t you? They follow the herd right off of cliffs to their watery doom.
Romance novels are not my cup of tea. I like horror, science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction history. But I have read a few romance novels, mostly to broaden my own horizons (and to be able to justify my criticism). I’ll be hornswoggled if I can understand why they’re so popular. If you happen to like them, good for you. I don’t. But that’s just my opinion.
If you think I’m mean, you should listen to the people I call my friends.
I mentioned I was going to add a literary criticism of the romance novels I’ve read to La Chute. “The key word there is literary,” they said. “Romance novels aren’t literary!”
Well, I’m not going to argue what’s literary and what’s not. Ever look into the display case at your local Baskin Robbins? Notice all the flavors? That’s how many differing opinions there are on what constitutes literary, and every one of them is valid. Like I said, I’m not getting into it.
A friend of mine wrote and has published a hair-raising essay comparing the herd of romance readers with the Heaven’s Gate cultists, and cult theory in general.   Then there was the story of a woman asked to give some writing tips to the local chapter of Romance Writers of America. She wasn’t sure why.  The common joke in a local national scientific facility when coming upon someone enjoying a book is to say, “Is that some romance you’ve got there?”  Even one of our local used book shop owners (at least one) refuses to stock romance novels for fear of eroding the minds of the readers.
Me, well, I think anything that pulls people away from the dross that is American television can’t be all bad. I have a lot of respect for the romance author who has worked so hard and put in so much research (so I hope, anyway) to create a book for the enjoyment of their readers. That’s a nice thing to do, when I think about it.
But I don’t like them. Why? Well, here are a few of my reasons:


I distrust money business and the mainstream. According to the World Wide Web Romantic Fiction Survey, 91% percent of the respondents (who were romance fans, for the most part) believed that publishing companies care too much about profit and not enough about quality. But they’ll go out and buy the novels and make it a billion dollar industry anyway. No thanks. I’ll pitch my dollars where they’ll count for something.
Ever see those life-size cardboard cut-outs that are sold in various entertainment stores? They remind me of the characters I have encountered in romance novels. It’s like the author bungled into a stock closet and pulled out a male and female protagonist. Even worse–I felt like ALL the authors I read used the SAME stock closet in creating their characters.
Okay. The male protagonist (genre lingo, the hero) is supposed to represent female fantasy in some way or another. Thus this gives the authors license to create men entirely unlike the male human beings we all know and love. Maybe it’s just me, but I LIKE real guys. I like their quirks and their shortcomings. And I like chests without much hair. Call me a deviant, but if I’m supposed to fall in love with the romance hero, there’s a chemical mishap afoot.
Lust is easy to portray. Love is a little more difficult. In spite of what I’m told by the author and by fans of the genre, I still see where the characters fall in lust with each other. Why? Because I’m not convinced the characters are worth loving.
Every one of the “heroes” deserved to be kneed in the balls, at least once.
A friend of mine who is an aspiring romance novelist tells me that the novels MUST have a happy ending in order to succeed. Gack! What a limitation! Life doesn’t always have happy endings. Maybe that’s part of the romance fantasy, I don’t know. It’s the same problem I have with so much of American cinema–everything needs to be honkey-dory in the end.
You get my drift. And before anyone raises their fist at me, crying, “But you’ve never READ a romance novel!” let me assure you that my opinions (and that’s all they are, folks) are based on actual reading. This doesn’t mean I actually know anything, so take my commentary for what it’s worth. Virtually nothing.
All that being said, let me offer some brief reviews (or something) on the handful of historical romances I have read. I don’t list these in any particular order. Some were published in the early seventies, and some were published just last year. Some were published between the two.
THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER–Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
The Flame and the Flower is sometimes held up as an example of the best of the romance genre. It is recommended to aspiring romance authors for its supposedly devastating levels of sensuality. To an extent, I would have to agree that Woodiwiss’ work does successfully convey a certain, stomach-turning kind of sensuality. Unfortunately, that is about all good I can say about this brick of a book. We are presented with a pluckless heroine and a conceited hero, neither of whom seem to develop too much more than the barest personality throughout the book. I did not like the repeated objectification of the heroine, nor did I like the message that outer beauty could compensate for lack of personhood. Perhaps my greatest quarrel are the numerous grammatical errors which bullet the text. I was never so caught up in the romance to miss them. Lines such as, “‘Ssh,’ he shushed” and “Please,’ she pleaded” are fairly typical of the insipid dialogue. Yes, the genre has come a long way since this book was published in 1972. Yet it is still available on bookshelves for purchase in 1997; is it speaking well for the genre?
FIRST SEX SCENE: Heroine mistaken for a prostitute. Taken by two men from the hero’s ship to please the hero for the night. She thinks she’s been grabbed by the law. Hero doesn’t realize he’s raping a virgin until too late.
SKYE O’MALLEY–Bertrice Small
Oh gosh, oh golly, what woman wouldn’t want to be Skye O’Malley? Well, me, for one. Ravishing, tall, intelligent, shrewd, rich, powerful, and gutsy? Poor woman must have spent her whole life waiting for the other shoe to drop. Of course, psychotherapy would not have been invented yet in the sixteenth century.
I got the impression that the word FUCK to the author was like a new toy or a first real sword. “Oooooooh…if I use this naughty naughty word, I will scandalize my reader.” Sorry, but no dice. FUCK needs to sound natural in order to have any real effect. Did I buy it? Fuck that…
Oh, and the purple prose! I think even The Artist Formerly Known As Prince would puke up his purple guts. “See how sweetly your breast nestles into my hand? It is like a little white dove.” “…your little honey-oven is made for me!” “Take me like the stallion took my mare!” “…succulent pink flesh…” (reminds me of all-you-can-eat ribs night) “Your little rose is tightly closed to me now…” (in reference to the heroine’s asshole) are just a few of the purple highlights.
FIRST SEX SCENE: The character who I think is supposed to be the hero (I don’t know–there’s more than one hero in this book) claims his droit du seigneur (in Ireland?) of the young bride, who is the heroine.
A PIRATE’S LOVE–Johanna Lindsey
I think “A Pirate’s Lust” would have been a more appropriate title. Here’s another example of two people who fall in lust with each other. And why not? He’s drop-dead gorgeous, and she’s the most beautiful woman to ever walk this planet or any other. What more does it need?
Well, personality would have been nice. Here’s the story of a pirate who kidnaps a girl based on her beauty, and keeps her to make love to her in spite of her “hellcat” (I HATE that term!) ways and resistance. Romance fans might tell me I have to put myself in a seventeenth century mindframe for the romance part to make sense. Nuh-uh. How the hell should I know how a seventeenth century Barbie doll would react?
FIRST SEX SCENE: The hero promises to release the prisoners he’s taken from the heroine’s captured ship if she will submit to him. There’s nothing willing about this, mind.
This is a romance? It reminded me more of a very long Taco Bell commercial, only replete with sex and violence.
I will say this, however. The book made me realize how painfully ignorant I am of Mexico. I’ve since taken steps (read books, etc.) to correct this lack. After all, it IS on my continent.
FIRST SEX SCENE: Well, the first one between the hero and heroine, anyway. The hero gets it on with a few ladies earlier in the book, including the heroine’s stepmother. Anyway, their first time is under a wagon in the Texas dust. She wants to get rid of her virginity, and he’s happy to oblige.
All right. I have to make a confession. I think I actually liked this book. Beau Spence is the only heroine I’ve met that I’d go out with for a round of lager. As long as she leaves the hero behind.
FIRST SEX SCENE: After pages and pages of build-up, the hero finally nails the heroine one night when she stumbles past the cabin he is using.
SAXON BRIDE–Tamara Leigh
Wait a second…is this the same Norman Conquest that I’ve studied? It can’t be. This book has to have been taking place one universe to the right or something. Nothing rang true to what I’ve learned about 1066 and all that.
This book would lead you to believe that the Normans were cruel and heartless barbarians, especially to the conquered Saxons. According to what I’ve read, the Normans offered the Saxons a better deal than any Saxon thane. You wouldn’t know it to read this account.
I have to admit to a Norman bias in the matter. That kind of ruined the whole book for me.
FIRST SEX SCENE: Went on for pages without building up any fun tension. By the time he pierced her “maidenly flesh”, I was screaming, “JUST DO IT ALREADY!”
IN A PIRATE’S ARMS–Mary Kingsley
(This review is one I posted for the book on Amazon.Com, hence its still will seem different than the style of other reviews on this page. So it goes.)
Let me give you an overview of why I threw this book against the wall (other than the overuse of pet names and direct address and, oh, lots of other things). Take a man, assumably distinguished looking. Blue eyes, thick hair, bod to die for. Stick an eyepatch on him, and go to bed with him. Go to bed with him a lot. Okay, now let’s have him a year later without the eyepatch. My gosh! It must be an entirely different person! Uh…no. I think the author must have horrendous vision and/or perception problems if she thinks this can play.
FIRST SEX SCENE: Well, the eyepatch doesn’t fall off, anyway.
I kept forgetting the name of this book. I usually ended up calling it “Sweet and Sour Eden”. At any rate, this book is distinguished among my reading list for featuring the worst sex scene I have ever encountered in any book.
Take cardboard cut-out hero (you know, the higher-than-thou noble type who’s never been denied anything in his wretched life) and a cardboard cut-out heroine (you know, she’s a beautiful hellcat or something, rather gutsy). Put them into the plot situation–she hates him, but he has lots of money, and since he wants her, they agree to marry. Make sure neither of them are likeable (they both behaved like spolied twerps, even thought the heroine came from poverty). But somehow, in the wilds of Virginia (no high occupancy vehicle lanes yet), they fall in passionate love.
If two cardboard cut-outs fall in love in the middle of a forest…does anybody care?
FIRST SEX SCENE: The wedding night in the hero’s manor house. The heroine still hates him, but he’s determined to have her. And have her he does…for about ten pages longer than was necessary. If I ever read the word “laved” again, I swear I’ll puke.
LION’S BRIDE–Iris Johansen
My memories of this book are very vague, but not entirely negative. I liked the change of venue from the romance norm (’twas set in the Middle East during the Crusades). I liked the mysticism. I even liked the heroine, who showed a distinctive wisdom.
So why on earth did she fall for the twit hero? Beats me. Romance laws of the universe, I suppose.
FIRST SEX SCENE: Hooray! A heroine who takes the initiative!
I could barely muddle through this disjointed retelling of the Sherwood saga. The book came highly recommended (by someone I will never trust again), and as such, it was worth weeping when I discovered how truly awful it was. To be brief, the sexual content isn’t just graphic– it’s downright disgusting. Feyrer’s Robin Hood was completely lacklustre, and paled like a flashlight with a low-running battery compared to the full moon brightness of Maid Marian. If you like the Robin Hood legend, keep your impressions as they are. Thief’s Mistress may ruin the glory of Sherwood for you.
FIRST SEX SCENE: You know, I found the book so disjointed that I don’t even remember what the first sex scene was. I do remember “nether lips” and biting in places I wouldn’t consider fun.
I don’t know what it is. Maybe I’m just not a romantic. Maybe I’m too analytical. But whatever it is, the romance genre and I do not get along well. I don’t want to think we’re enemies. Perhaps we’ll just maintain mutual respect and keep a safe distance from each other.
Geeks rule.