History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

05 November 2008

A Generation of Erotic Romance

I loved giving my erotic writing workshop on the East Coast last month.

Twice. (Well, once is never enough, is it?)

-- First to Maryland Romance Writers, in a roomy, leisurely time frame -- with opportunity for some excellent, challenging questions.

-- And then at New Jersey Romance Writers' delightful and lovingly organized 2010 Put Your Heart in a Book Conference. Here I had to squeeze the thing into 45 minutes. And though I managed exactly, I was sad that there was no time for Q&A.

Still, I did get to speak afterward to conference participants, including hoydens Janet Mullany and Diane Whiteside, ex-San Franciscans Candice Hern and Julie Anne Long, and many other friends and writers, established and beginning, who are interested in the risky business of imagining and representing the most profoundly physical and yet emotional sensations in little black marks on white paper.

All of which renewed my faith and strengthened my understanding of the generation-long period I and others have come through, both within the romance-novel community and outside of it.

And which continues to excite my interest in how the two intellectual worlds I occupy -- of romance-writing and of what was once called "sex-positive feminism" -- are beginning to converge and enrich each other.

Which was how I framed my talk. Which began with this PowerPoint slide:

Imagining Sex: From Arousal to Craft
Writing Erotic Romance With All Our Sense and Sensibility

but which then paused (dramatically, I hope) for one of my favorite narrative devices: the oft-maligned prologue for historical context. And for biographical context as well, to allow me to situate own trajectory through this history.

Beginning some 38 years back (let's call it a long generation), with the publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss's 1972 debut novel The Flame and the Flower, the book that appears to have started the bodice-ripper phenomenon and perhaps even spawned the word "bodice-ripper" itself (not to speak of a baby-naming craze -- I mean, was anybody named Heather or Brandon before the 70s?).

Also the first romance to be published (by Avon) in paperback, with a beginning print run of 500,000, soon to be upped to 600,000.

And also a book that begins with a rape. Yes, it's based on a misunderstanding, but yes, it's unquestionably a rape. Hard to read -- though, in truth, I find all that novel's prose pretty tough going, from the immortal opening sentence of:
Somewhere in the world, time no doubt whistled by on taut and widespread wings, but here in the English countryside it plodded slowly, painfully, as if it trod the rutted road that stretched across the moors on blistered feet.
But even it's the readerly ear that's blistered (particularly by that last dangling modifier), The Flame and the Flower is an important book.

Not that I was paying attention back then. Back then I'd just begun working at Modern Times Bookstore, the first bookstore in San Francisco (and one of the very few anywhere) to feature an explicit feminist take on reality and an imposing bookcase solely devoted to women's issues -- fiction on one side, non-fiction on the other. No romance novels, but I did find one of my secret guilty favorites on the Women's Fiction shelves -- the intensely, if elegantly, sadomasochistic Story of O.

"What's that doing here?" I asked Karen, the lovely woman who was teaching me the rudiments of bookselling.

"Well, it's by a woman and it's about power," she said wisely. "And so is feminism. About power."

Indeed. And if we'd been just a little wiser, we might have included The Flame and the Flower. If we'd been as wise, say, the romance author Susan Elizabeth Phillips, who tells of her own encounter with the bodice rippers of the 70s in an essay called "Romance and the Empowerment of Women."

The heroes of these books, Phillips pointed out, were "perpetually sardonic, and committed some rather violent sex acts on the heroines."

And though she might like to report that she and a romance-reading friend "were horrified," that they "picketed," or "wrote outraged letters to publishers." But they didn't, Phillips says, because "the undeniable fact was that... we loved those books.... despite the fact that we were the two most unspoken feminists in our neighborhood."

I love Phillips' essay -- which you can find in Jayne Ann Krentz' anthology, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers and the Appeal of the Romance. In some ways it's my own experience in a funhouse mirror. Because while I wasn't reading romance, I was also struggling to understand the complicated business of if and how my own cherished secret pleasures fit into my feminist convictions.

Which led to the moment when feminists did begin picketing bookstores, at San Francisco's 1978 Take Back the Night March, which I decided to sit out, because I didn't believe that anybody should be telling my younger self not to read Story of O.

To the Reagan-era censorship of newly-produced feminist erotica (or as we used to say, "a porn of our own," much to the chagrin of certain segments of our movement).

To my own comic BDSM Carrie's Story (where the very ladylike French SM heroine O is reborn as an overeducated motormouth perpetual English Major San Francisco bike messenger), to my observations (duh!) that perhaps they were dealnig with similar issues in those brightly-colored romance novels on the racks on the supermarkets, and maybe I should finally check out what was going on across the aisle.

To my own first try at an explicitly erotic romance novel -- The Bookseller's Daughter.

And catching up with my continuing journey from my own cherished moments of arousal to the craft (because ultimately this is a workshop about craft) of engaging, entertaining, and arousing my reader.

Not to speak of teaching and maybe even delighting her some of those bright faces in the workshop audiences. Thanks, to those of you who attended, for the nods and oh-I-get-it smiles and even the laughs at the right times.

And wish you could have been there if you weren't. There's an tiny reading list from the workshop posted on my blog. But I also hope I get to give it again soon.

And I'd love to know what your experience has been as a reader or writer in this fascinating, developing, (and not easy to do well) corner of the romance genre.

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