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21 May 2010

Is a Cigar Ever Just a Cigar? (A Brief, Personal, and Uncompleted History of Sex in Romance Fiction)

The significant birthday I'm going to be celebrating soon has its good and its bad aspects. But when I'm feeling down about it I comfort myself that I can blog at this site about anything that interests me because I, after all, am history.

For certainly the romance genre changed since I've been writing in it -- as one of the Smart Bitches might say, let me count the ways, yo. At least from the erotic side of things, which is where I, uh... sit... I'd begin counting thusly:

-- Beginning with those readers who were shocked, shocked, when I suggested, in Almost a Gentleman, that a man might ever be attracted to a man (except for when he was part of that acceptable romance device of bad first husband who didn't make the heroine feel sexually desirable).

-- Or when writing about certain sexual positions was enough, as romance reviewer Mrs. Giggles once said of my novella "A House East of Regent Street," to "send genteel readers into seizures."

-- Not to speak of when it was as though I lived and wrote in two entirely separate worlds -- of the hard-core kink of the erotic novels I wrote as Molly Weatherfield and according to the it's-all-about-the-relationship diktat of the erotic romance I wrote as Pam Rosenthal (and when I was urged to keep my dual identity quiet).

None of which distinctions -- to my great fascination -- seem to hold anymore.

The first set of walls that toppled for me was the necessity of keeping my dual identity under wraps. Even in 2003, just after Pam's Almost a Gentleman was first published and Molly's Carrie's Story was reissued, I organized a joint book party for both my authorial identities, at which "we" read from "our" books and talked about the themes "we" shared, and nobody (including my romance editor) seemed to get too exercised about it. Probably because erotic romance was getting so steamy that the borders between it and erotica were simply melting away (more about this later).

While as for the other two changes I've seen, though -- the almost deadpan readerly casualness nowadays about less conventional physical sex and the growing market for romances between two men: You can see examples of both of these in a recent discussion at DearAuthor.com, titled "Do you Skim/Skip Sex Scenes?" And as someone who tends to give a lot of thought to authorial choices in writing about explicit sexuality, I was fairly well blown away by all the "ho-hum, another anal scene" comments, not to speak of a fair number of "oh well, I just read the m/m stuff..." responses.

Though I shouldn't have been surprised by those "ho hum, another..." responses. Actually, I suppose I should have been able to predict them a few years ago when, at a Romance Writers of America National Conference, I found myself talking at a party to an editor from a romance house just about to launch its erotica line.

The editor (who's no longer in the business) was proud as punch and I was curious to find out more.

"So," I asked, "what authorial take will you be looking for, when writing about sex?"

"Oh," she said, "there'll be a lot more sex."

"Yes," I said. "I imagine so. But you know, erotic writing is... well, it takes a certain sense of... of self... and..." I'm not sure what I was going to say, because the business of writing explicit sex, where craft meets self-exposure and pleasure meets I-can't-believe-I'm-actually-doing-this-but-just-try-and-stop-me continues to astonish, delight, and mortally confuse me.

But I didn't get a chance to say it, because the editor in question didn't seem to find anything confusing about it. "A LOT more sex," she repeated. "TWICE as much as in Almost a Gentleman."

More. Right. I got it. As though MORE was all you knew on earth and all you need to know. Which is why, I think, you get all those ho-hum responses now.

While as for the m/m stuff -- well, here I'm curious and fascinated and working overtime to read and understand the historical journey from Jane Austen, who never wrote a scene between men that didn't have a woman present (because she herself could never have physically witnessed such a conversation) to the increasingly common sexually explicit male/male romance written for women by women.

In fact, I was curious (and sometimes entertained) enough by the m/m romance phenomenon enough to put myself on the line recently and propose a presentation for this summer's IASPR conference (International Association for the Study of Popular Romance) conference in Brussels, Belgium, with the title of "The Queer Theory of Eve Sedgwick at the Edges of the Popular Romance Imagination." Partly because I figured it was the only way I'd ever get myself to read the brilliant late academic Sedgwick with anything like the attention and discipline her work demands. (Sedgwick was one of the originators of what's called "queer theory" -- and no, it doesn't mean that every story or relationship can be "deconstructed" to find a homosexual one beneath... it means something a great deal more complex and interesting, that I hope to write about after I manage my own reading of it to my satisfaction.)

Which is why you're likely to find me in the library most afternoons these days taking apart Sedgwick's dense, magisterial sentences and feeling as I do that I'm splitting atoms of heavy metal and releasing energy that seems to shimmer and shed new light -- on the questions I've been stuttering about for years, in the strange matter of close-up-and-personal erotic and romantic writing.

And yes, I do have some provisional answers. But not now or here. Except for two hints:

-- yeah, it's at least partly about power. Always has been, which is no surprise to me because for the space of my adult life at least, romance and feminism have been leap-frogging each other to make more sense of these issues in the erotic arena.

-- and in Sedgwick's words from her book Epistemology of the Closet (and with a nod to the guy with the cigar):
"...where would the whole, astonishing and metamorphic Western romance tradition (I include psychoanalysis) be if people's sexual desire, of all things, were even momentarily assumed to be transparent to themselves?"
Not to speak (this is me, Pam, now) of how many romance (and romance-inflected) novels we'd have lost along the way. (And I absolutely love that she uses the same word I so often do, "astonishing.")

OK. Readers and writers in the romance (and other) genres: What other changes have you noted, and why do you think that is?

And are any of you going to Brussels this August?

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26 Comments:

Blogger Erastes said...

I WISH I was going to Brussels. I wish Britain had conferences of this type, it's rather depressing. There's nothing I'd like better than to grab Alex Beecroft and Charlie Cochrane and go and do a panel on m/m historicals somewhere, but all the literary events over here seem to be invite only.

Hmm. Changes. Well I suppose I haven't been in the biz long enough to notice too much, plus of course I don't read or write heterocentric novels. But the change in five years from "no-one publishes gay romance" to "blimey - look at all these specialist publishers!" is amazing to see. When I was first writing "Standish" I was concerned about where the hell I was going to sell it, because literally no-one was publishing it, not Alyson or any of the larger gay publishers, and it was exactly the time when the major gay publisher in the UK went bust.

Changes since then... I have noticed (and I speak from a historical aspect, as I rarely read contemps) that there is probably less sex in gay historicals than previously. The writers in the genre are concentrating more on the story, and the history than just a sex romp which is good, imho. People will automatically equate gay=sex and that's no more true of gay men than of any person.

The quality in historicals has risen too - the writers are interested in getting the facts right, and that's great. Obviously, as the trend rises, there will be more wallpaper historicals creeping in, but I think the current quality, and the groups which discuss research etc will encourage a higher effort from the writers who are coming into the genre. Of course there's always going to be someone who just wants "hot men in fancy dress"!

As for Austen, that's a popular misconception. She is noted for having one scene between men only. In Mansfield Park.

http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/malemale.html

2:56 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Like Erastes, I wish I was going to Brussels! Alas, I am not (though I am--of course--going to Burning Man, which has its own strange and wonderful sexual overtones [sic]).

I think the best thing I've noticed since I became a romance convert c. 1998 is that virgin heroines are no longer the ultimate end-all-be-all-only-option. Thank heavens. I simply can not be an acolyte in the temple of the feisty virgin ingénue (even though I’m sort of writing one now, minus the “ingénue” part, and hopefully not to much with the feisty).

I too have been appalled by the misnomer that erotic = more sex. Ugh. Maybe that’s why the line I think you’re referencing :::cough:::Aphrodeisa:::cough::: has rarely worked for me (but many of the Brava ones do). It also may be why my own books get called erotic. I really don’t have that much sex in them, but I have characters who are lusty in every sense of the word and I write honest and graphic sex scenes (oh, and I use the word “cock”, which seems to be something only “hot” writers do, LOL!).

Pam? While we’ve got Erastes here, I’d love to hear from her and you (and anyone else out there who reads or writes M/M) about the motivations and underlying attraction for this dynamic. I find myself torn (as Pam and I discussed over lunch not too long ago) . . . on the one hand, I have absolutely no problem with M/M love stories, but there’s something about M/M written “by women for women” that just hits a wrong note for me. It somehow carries a tinge of fetishizing (sp?) the other, of exploitation. And I can’t shake the uneasy feeling it leaves me with. Maybe it hits me this way because I’m Native American and all the entire subgenre staring Indian Bucks and Pretty White Women written by white women for white women has always felt wrong to me on a very personal level? Anyway, I’d love to hear from those who read and write M/M, because I’d also really love to be shown that my misgivings are ridiculous and unfounded.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Erastes. There's a great deal here for me to chew on.

I'm fascinated with your remark that people will automatically equate gay=sex. It's my experience too, but really, why should that be? I'm gonna have to think more about that.

While as for the scene between Edmund and Sir Thomas -- good to know before I repeat that old saw about Austen. And the example is notable for its very Mansfield Park-iness: Edmund, as always, is the genius of the "fair account," (even if it's a belated one), while Austen as ever is the genius of the aching or comic missed personal connection. There's no spoken exchange between father and son reproduced, and few words indirectly reported. Austen's change of verb tense is precipitous; Sir Thomas can hardly wait to put the interaction behind himself:

Sir Thomas saw all the impropriety... as strongly as his son had ever supposed he must; he felt it too much, indeed, for many words; and having shaken hands with Edmund, meant to try to lose the disagreeable impression, and forget...

It's a wonderful example of how Sir Thomas is constrained to cut himself off from familial interaction in depth.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I wish both you guys were coming to Brussels, Kalen and Erastes. And for now, I hope Erastes responds to the question first. Because I'm still getting my thoughts in order and reading as much as I can.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Victoria Janssen said...

Very interesting post! I wish I could go to Brusells, if only to hear your paper! I hope you will make it available online after the conference.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Sounds like a fascinating conference, Pam! Please bring us back a report. I, too, am pleased to see that our heroines don't necessarily have to be virgins locked in a tower for their first eighteen years.

And like Kalen, I do have issues with those Native American buck and the lily white woman romances written by people who have no idea what the true Native American experience was once Columbus blundered onto the continent. People have often asked me why I write about Regency England rather than setting my romances in and around my Cherokee and Creek ancestors. Frankly, my people have not had a very romantic time of it the last 5 or 6 hundred years. As my father's family was about as Anglo as one could be (He had three Welsh grandparents and one English one who didn't come to the States until 1892) I feel far more inclined to find romance in Regency England rather than in the 19th Century American West.

I have noticed that readers are far more bothered by historical errors in their romances these days and I like that. Tends to keep one on their toes.

My first novel has an amazing gay character in it, a valet, and I actually had a few of my gay friends read it to insure that I captured this character's spirit in a believable way. For some reason their approval meant a great deal to me.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Victoria, I'm sure the conference will be well attended by bloggers and tweeters, no doubt at the teach me tonight blog and other wonky venues.

The pity of it is that as it's in early August, and I have a family wedding to go to on August 1, with all my family converging on the SF Bay Area, it just made for too much and I had to cancel attending RWA National. Which I hated to do -- so audibly, as it turned out, that the nice young woman from Southwest Airlines kept asking me if I was really sure about cancelling my flight.

While as for gay characters, Louisa, I know just what you mean. Because while I was writing my earlier romances I was taking a Proust class that was so successful we became a longtime reading group -- me and 7 gay men. Best way in the world to read In Search of Lost Time, imo (except possibly as a student of Eve Sedgwick). But anyway, I checked in a lot with my Proust buddies about certain of my characters (though of course one didn't say "gay" in the Regency).

1:21 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I bought a few M/M romances and gave them to three of my gay friends a couple of years ago. They unanimously (and separately) declared that these were not books with gay characters, these were books staring “women with wangs” (to use a direct quote from one of the boys).

1:32 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

But then, isn't the male hero of a het romance often a female creation for a female audience? Aren't a thousand female characters in a thousand literary novels male creations for an audience where men have had some pre-eminence?

One of the things that fascinates me about het romance of the last decade or so is that it's very much a female imagining of a desirable, even utopian erotic/romantic power balance (and the struggle to get there).

Why not enjoy all that imagining? We do, after all, call them "romances."

1:46 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

But then, isn't the male hero of a het romance often a female creation for a female audience?

The idealized man syndrome. Yeah, a lot of them are, but I guess I’m still hung up on the issue of M/M by women for women having a vaguely creepy feeling.

2:08 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

a lot of them are [idealized]

Most of them are, even when we try our best to give them some flaw or another -- like maybe TOO responsible or something. Hey, all of them are idealized. It's what the genre is about. Our heroes and heroines aren't perfect, but they're perfectly adorable. And, like Chauncy Gardiner, we like to watch.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Fascinating subject, Pam, and one dear to my heart. When I first started reading romance I was intrigued and horrified but mostly mystified by the sex. For the most part it bore no relation to anything I'd ever done (and I'd done quite a lot) and it followed a predictable, old school pattern: defloration followed by first time grade A simultaneous orgasms, and the nailbiting wait for the judges' scores.

Changes I've noticed: There's still a fair amount of bending over backwards to have the heroine remain a virgin (why is it impossible to write about this without rolling out double entendres?). Now and again sex isn't that great. Some of the awful old cliches have died the rich death they deserved, although new ones have sprung up in their place.

But what I don't see for the most part is characters talking while they're having sex--rarely the "would you mind moving your head, I can't breathe" stuff--and I've heard people claim quite seriously that men can't talk while having sex. Oh yes they can. And, oh yes, they should. Oh baby.

And a lot of it still doesn't read like they're having fun (Pam, one of the great notable exceptions is the brilliant pirate plunder scene in The Slightest Provocation). It's all gritted teeth and angst and a sort of below the belt visit to the dentist. And it's ALL like that all the time whereas I firmly believe that sex can either be a threaded steel device to join pieces of wood together or Nirvana and every point and detour in between, and shouldn't the sex show something about the characters and their growth (mind out of the gutter, please)? And the sex scenes should have texture and context and a life of their own.

One trap we've fallen into is to assume that explicitness is implicit with the level of heat which is just silly. I always find it hilarious when my Little Black Dress books are described as "having no sex" when to me they're full of it, through a Georgian lens of shame and manners.

Too much, too late, and I need to write. Thanks for the topic, Pam.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Pam - I totally agree that erotic should not equal explicitness, any more than it should equal more sex scenes. (Yech.)

On the other hand, I once read a bestseller described as astonishingly erotic which included one and only scene involving an orgasm. It occurred very late in the book and consisted of no more than half a page. So I think it all boils down to how well the author executes the foreplay. LOL

I find it astonishing that my book THE SWITCH is still considered edgy 8 years later because the heroine is a fem domme and the hero is a male sub (albeit retired Army special forces).

Nine years later, I'm also pleased as punch that one of my short stories made it onto the short list for BEST GAY EROTICA, only to lose out due to the volume's overall page count. There are some rejection letters that an author hugs close on those rainy nights.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Brilliant post as always, Pam! One of the major changes I've noticed since I first started writing romance (decades ago) is that the traditional Regency, which is what I started writing, basically no longer exists. On the other hand, there are all sorts of Regency historical romances, where at one time they were fairly rare.

I started out co-writing with my mom. When we first had a sex scene in one of our books, I made her write it. Later she told me I had to write one, and I literally turned the screen down on my computer while I wrote it. I got over that fairly quickly :-).

It's odd to think now, but I was worried when I first put two gay men in one of my books (who, as Pam says, of course don't use the word gay to describe themselves). I remember thinking I'd have to ask some of my gay friends to vet their scenes and make sure I got it "right". Then I realized that I hadn't lived the life of any of my characters, so why was I so particularly worried about these two. Gay characters don't have to represent all gay people, they're simply two individuals who came out of the author's head, just like all the other characters in the book.

9:43 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Great story about turning down the screen, Tracy. And congrats on that rejection letter, Diane. It's so interesting how the two markets for erotic fiction I used to know as separate have come to merge.

And a rant from Janet! Yay! You made my day.

11:51 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And thanks for the kind words about the pirate sex in The Slightest Provocation

11:57 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

And a lot of it still doesn't read like they're having fun

I think talking goes along with the fun . . .do you think maybe the reason we don't get a lot of "fun" sex scenes might have something to do with the genre's current adoration of the angsty/tortured hero?

I know in my own books, sometimes the sex if fun, sometimes it calamitous, sometimes it's angry. It all depends on what's going on with the characters and what's motivating the sex (rather like real life IMO).

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Maryan said...

". . . the entire subgenre staring Indian Bucks and Pretty White Women written by white women for white women. . ."

Seems to me to be a much different issue than m/m romances. The continuing cultural racism, I think, prevents any meaningful discussion similar to queer theory. The treatment of Indian/white interaction (can they really be called "relationships"?), whether in romances or westerns, tends to be more influenced by an imperial/colonial attitude. There's a fascination with "the other" but little to no attempt to understand it. It's almost paranormal: the erotic is sex with the alien. Beyond all that, most of the "Indian romances" are wildly historically inaccurate--and that makes them more difficult to tolerate.

And as to the women for women issue: except for a couple exceptions, has not the genre always been that way?

7:05 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

@Maryan

I don't think it's different at all, and that's my hang-up. It's a fascination with the other, explored in a semi-exploitative way, by someone completely outside that group for the entertainment of others completely outside that group.

I'm uncomfortable with the dynamic. I'd really like to see a discussion of the genre, motivations, and attractions. You've stated that you think Indian romances are different, and you've outlined what is wrong with them, but you didn't address my reservations about M/M at all.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I think that queer theory (at least in Sedgwick's variant) does begin to answer your question, Kalen. In this way of looking at culture as it is and culture as it's sitting on some romance editor's slush pile right now -- men are never JUST the glamorized, fetishized other.

Sedgwick's queer theory begins with a feminist take on how society is structured -- the longtime and ongoing m/f power imbalance and beyond that, a longtime set of habits of mind built upon kinship structures whereupon POWER EXCHANGE HAPPENS BETWEEN MEN and whereupon culture (even the feminist-influenced, by-women-for-women popular romance of today) begins with that kinship structure (even when it does so in order to challenge it). The question of how to portray m/m and/or m/f (OR f/f) erotic power dynamics BY the living object of exchange (and guess who that is, folks?) animates many romance novels today.

But of course, romance fiction doesn't make its arguments or set up its situations discursively. It does it imaginatively -- it looks for "what if" situations (or "what will catch an editor's attention" ones). And it's in this huge diversity of imaginary variations and challenges that we see the evolution of a fascinating discussion of gender, power, and sexuality.

8:30 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And yea, @Maryan -- it is always by-women-for-women. Thanks for stressing that point.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

"And as to the women for women issue: except for a couple exceptions, has not the genre always been that way?"

I don't think so. You've got ancient Greek love stories with happy endings such as that of Daphnis and Chloe, medieval ones such as the story of Floire et Blanchefleur, you've got Richardson's Pamela, lots of Anthony Trollope's novels, E. M. Forster's A Room with a View and others. Even if you don't want to count any of those as romances, there are quite a few more recent male romance authors. As for readers, the most recent RWA statistics I can find on this are as follows: "Women make up 90.5 percent of the romance readership, and men make up 9.5 percent."

9:25 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

interesting. I didn't mean the older stuff, tho -- and you're right to point it out, Laura. And there's also recent research that men always read novels even when it was considered a women's genre.

While as to the current romance genre, however -- I'd argue that if it's still by-women-for-women. Though whether the male readership is growing and trending to challenge this is really an interesting question.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Well, THAT was sure unclear. Take 2;

While as to the current romance genre, however -- I'd argue that it's still by-women-for-women. Though whether the male readership is growing and trending to challenge this is really an interesting question.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Maryan said...

@Kalen
"you think Indian romances are different"

No, not really. I was trying to get at the white (specifically US/Anglo?) cultural phobia with miscegenation and the sacrosanctity of the White Woman. The white folk (always exceptions to such generalizations) have never fully even attempted to understand or validate American Indian cultures. The bulk of racial studies and theory focus on black/white and Latin/Hispanic/white, and it's that unexamined racism which so affects and distorts romances involving American Indians. The Indian hero isn't just idealized; he's stylized. What bothers me most--and makes the these types of romances so difficult to read--is that very lack of development and understanding. Lordy, the vampires receive more complexity and humanity than the American Indian.

"didn't address my reservations about M/M"
Sorry, wasn't really attempting to. I'd suggest that the m/m or f/f issues might be more easily bridged than the cross-cultural issues involved with race, ethnicity and nationality. Another cultural example is the fascination with Greek magnates or Arab shieks; the cultural differences tend not to be presented accurately nor resolved realistically.

So, I guess I'd suggest that the gender relationships within a culture are much different from any cross-cultural situation.

4:30 PM  

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