History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

14 November 2008

Mending the Bodice?

I must admit, after all these years of reading romance—and more recently—of writing romance, I still wince when I see the term “bodice ripper.”
As historical authors, we bear the brunt of the stigma associated with this term. How many times have I heard historical romance writers, as the authors of the bodice ripper, are not serious writers, we write by formula (please, someone tell me what it is so I can use it), and that we have cardboard characters who swoon, fight and—well, you know—rip bodices?

I googled the phrase bodice ripper and found this discussion as the first link (from the Phrase Dictionary):

Romance Novels known as Bodice Rippers: “These books owe much in style to the work of English romantic novelists like Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. Nevertheless, the term itself is American. The first reference in print is from The New York Times, December 1980:
"Women too have their pornography: Harlequin romances, novels of 'sweet savagery,' - bodice-rippers."

It soon caught on and appears numerous times in the US press from that date onward. Here's an early example, in a story about [then] emerging novelist, Danielle Steel, from the Syracuse Herald Journal, New York, 1983:

"I think of romance novels as kind of bodice rippers, Steel says."

The genre is commercially highly successful, but isn't taken seriously by most literary critics. Most examples are judged by more base criteria than the classic works of Austen or the Brontes. Bodice Rippers are strictly formulaic and the plot usually involves a vulnerable heroine faced with a richer and more powerful male character, whom she initially dislikes. Later, she succumbs to lust and falls into his arms. The formula requires the books to be fat 'page turners', i.e. a plot device, usually a seduction scene, must happen at frequent intervals. Depending on the author or publishing house style, the principal characters must marry. It is virtually obligatory for the cover picture to show the swooning, ample-bosomed heroine.”

I’m sure Ms. Austen and the Brontes would be appalled. And Gasp! A romance writer helped define exactly what a bodice ripper is.

But thank heavens, someone made a decent current post on wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romance_novel) all about romance as a genre, showcasing how many different lines of romance their really are, most of which do not fit the classic description of a bodice ripper as defined above.

I haven’t read a real bodice-ripping romance in years—except maybe a few recently where the heroine ripped her own bodice or she ripped the hero’s shirt. Different ball-game entirely. Yet the phrase “bodice ripper” persists, used by the uninformed and those who turn their noses up at what they think is romance. We are so much more than bodice ripper writers.

I was pleased to find this description of the romance genre in a crafts book.
From MAKING SHAPELY FICTION (by Jerome Stern):
“Writing successful genre fiction demands serious professional craftsmanship….It demands an understanding of such matters as optimum length, best ages for main characters, desired number of subplots, satisfactory endings and so forth….Some writers, though they neither enjoy nor know much about a genre will cynically try to turn out a romance…The effort usually ends up being a waste of time, their lack of belief in what they’re doing shows through. A sellable genre novel has to have its own freshness, its own originality, its own integrity . . .”

This was written in a book intended for “literary” writers and it’s one of the few discussions of genre where there’s no put down here, where bodice ripper isn’t even mentioned. This is refreshing.

The term will probably never go away, but maybe someday we’ll view it like we do those goofy outdated and often politically incorrect comic books from the 1940s.

In the meantime, what do you think it will take to mend the bodice? The abolishment of clutch covers? Or a new generation of readers who can’t remember Rosemary Rogers?


Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

It annoys me when they still call romance 'bodice rippers.' First of all, a bodice is not always that easy to rip. Secondly, all you have to do is read the current crop of romance writers to see that term no longer holds true. I think part of the problem, and this has been mentioned before, is that some of the covers hark back to the olden days of heaving bosoms and shirtless men who look like Fabio.

1:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tend to think that the dreadful so-out-of-date-it's-not-funny covers need to go - but then - some people love them. But you can't take a historical romance seriously when the cover shows a naked chested scotsman in an anachronistic kilt in the snow bending a women backward in what is probably a freezing nipple-breaking wind.

Also the history - I read so many books where people just don't seem to care about the history being correct - and this is one of the major problems that historians have with historical romances. I've even had READERS say to me that they don't care either-which seems bizarre.

I'm still trying to remember whose bodice got ripped in any Austen or Bronte..

2:16 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Oh, Kathrynn, this is one my my pettest peeves, so thanks for the opportunity to vent.

In my opinion, the problem is covers, covers, covers! If publishers keep printing images of men ripping women's bodices past their shoulders (regardless of the fact that yes, Kerri, bodices are indeed difficult to rip and I would not be turned on by a man who destroyed my garment) --hell-o! People will keep calling romance novels "bodice rippers."

Pretty damn simple. I'm on record over and over as detesting those covers which I think do a vast disservice to several novels that are saddled with them. The images are cheesy, not sexy; and the authors have to overcome that picture-is-worth-100-words obstacle. BUT, publishers must keep printing those covers because they sell. And as long as those covers sell novels, the novels beneath those covers will be tagged with the "bodice ripper" label.

Erastes really nailed it with the comment about how impossible it is for readers with any sense of history to take those anachronistic covers seriously.

So writers who are writing well researched and well crafted stories need to get together with your agents and see what you can do about it when your publisher foists one of those covers on you. Or, if you're selling so well (perhaps partially because of the clinch cover), you have my warmest congratulations! And it's probably best to let the marketing speak for itself, suck it up, and keep banking your bucks.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Oops, lost a zero there. 1000 words, of course.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I loathe clinch covers 'cause I find them all show and no real erotic vibe. I suppose that if I got one and it led to huge sales I might just bear up under the shame, but in truth I don't think a cover alone will do that for you.

I don't think we have to defend the romance genre. A better thing to do would be to diversify it. I absolutely believe that the romance form captures something deep in many if not most women's imaginations. But that said, I think that each romance writer ought to be writing the best and deepest romance that captures her own imagination. Which for snarky, hyperintellected me means using genre convention as means rather than end. For me, genre form is like the melody of an old standard; I like to riff on it, work against it, improvise. So I wrote a ripped bodice into my first romance novel. It's a tiny little rip, to fool someone. I thought it was funny. I enjoyed having my hero apologize to my heroine that he'd wanted evidence of carnality that was "absolutely convincing." As though everybody, even in pre-Revolutionary France, would know what a ripped bodice signified.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great, thought-provoking post, Kathrynn! I agree so agree with everyone about the covers. That said, I have friends who've had lovely, tasteful, literate covers and the books haven't sold well. Probably because they didn't look like romances, because the clinch cover has come to exemplify romance. On the other hand, I strongly suspect those covers keep readers from trying the genre.

Pam, I love your comments about diversifying. I saw the final dress of "La bohème" last night at San Francisco Opera, and I was thinking about happy endings and genre conventions. "La bohème" emphatically doesn't have done (I usually start crying in Act I--last night was no exception). On the other hand, "Rent," based on the same story, does. I loved "Rent," but the ending left me completely baffled, and in a sense ruined the show for me. I thought this was because I'd seen "La bohème" (as had the friend I saw "Rent" with, who had the same reaction). But the friend I saw "bohème" with last night said he'd seen "Rent" before he'd seen "bohème" and he found the ending of "Rent" jarring as well. I love and adore happy endings. But not all stories, even--perhaps especially--not all love stories, work with a happy ending. I'm not sure I'd ever write a non-happy ending. But I like the possibility of one, if that makes any sense.

6:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been told too that clutch covers offer readers assurance about what they are getting--sex and an HEA...and they SELL.

I admit I hesitate to read them on a plane--or anywhere in public. It killed me when Carrie Bradshaw pitched a book to an editor (Big's wife?) and the word bodice ripper was used! Jeeese, the term just won't go away. ;-(

8:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a reader, I agree with Tracy Grant - I would never buy a novel with a 'clutch cover', irrespective of content. I doubt I would even pick it up to read the blurb. In fact, I thought such covers were a thing of the past, but no, a quick scan on Amazon by publisher - Harlequin, and Mills and Boon - reveals that the modern-models-in-anachronistic-dress style is still flourishing. I much prefer a crop of an old painting, signifying the era in which the story is set (which makes for a raft of books with the same historical figures on the cover, but at least faces fit the characters).

7:48 AM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I think covers are a way of branding a genre, a line, an author, and I am probably a lot more tolerant of a clinch cover than most of you here. It's a marketing tool, showing the reader what they might be getting ("Oh, is this a new Avon book?" the reader says as she picks the book up off the store shelf).

But, really, I think there is such a great diversity in romance covers today. I think that the publishers are trying new things, are moving away from the typical clinch cover, are more apt to show a shirtless man than a woman with her clothes falling off. I did a scan of romance covers on Amazon and found nary a classic clinch cover, so to discuss them may soon become as anachronistic as the term "bodice ripper."

Years ago I used bookcovers when reading romance in public. Now I don't and I HOPE someone will make a snide comment to me about my reading choice. It would be an opportunity to educate them as to what romance fiction really is.

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think, looking back at my own book covers...I wouldn't mind a clutch ...especially if it helps sales and helps me establish a readership. ;-)

4:49 PM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

what do you think it will take to mend the bodice?

Not that long ago RfP wrote a very tongue-in-cheek blog post about the recent discovery of a bodice lacer:

So what does this mean for the literary bodice ripper? Romance novels have a long tradition of lurid covers; the older novels in the genre often featured a bare-chested man ripping open the bodice of a stunned-looking woman. Or should I say, apparently ripping open. If the bodice ripper is really a bodice lacer, that puts a new complexion on the matter.

7:09 AM  

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