History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

05 November 2010

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 roomier, more leisurely time frame -- with opportunity for some excellent, challenging questions.

-- And then at New Jersey Romance Writers' delightful Put Your Heart in a Book Conference -- where I had to squeeze the thing into 45 minutes, which I managed exactly. And though there was, sadly, no time for Q&A, 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 -- all interested in the risky business of imagining and representing the most profoundly physical and yet emotional sensations in little black marks on white paper.

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

And continuing 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 to let me situate my self within that context as well.

Because I date the beginning of this phenomenon 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 the 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.
No matter that 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. Because I'd just begun working at Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco, the first bookstore in the city (and one of the very few anywhere) to feature an explicit feminist presence 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 shelf -- the intensely, if elegantly, sadomasochistic Story of O.

"What's that doing here?" I asked Karen, the lovely woman who was teaching me the ropes 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, she continues, though she might like to say that she and a romance-reading friend "were horrified," that they "picketed" or "wrote outraged letters to publishers." But they didn't, because, as Phillips continues, "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 that essay (which you can read in Jayne Ann Krentz's Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women anthology), not least because it's a kind of funhouse reflection of my own feminist soul-searching during those years -- though mine, of course, was directed toward the secret cherished pleasures of books like Story of O.

Because in those early, heady, years of feminism, it was hard to separate out issues of power and pleasure, both for those who read romance and those who didn't.

And so my workshop prologue continues through that history, marking some moments of particular interest to me,

-- as when feminists did, in fact, picket bookstores: 1978, the first Take Back the Night March in San Francisco, when I had to take a stand and tell my friends I wouldn't be going, because I didn't think that anybody had the right to tell my younger self not to read the books that were so important to me.

-- continuing through the censorship of the early Reagan era, when small-press lesbian and feminist erotic books were censored (though not, I have to add, big-money sexy romance), with the complicity (shameful, to my mind) of some feminists.

-- to my writing my own piece of literate smut, my 1995 comic BDSM novel Carrie's Story, where the ladylike SM heroine of Story of O is reborn as an overeducated, motormouthed, perpetual English Major San Francisco bike messenger.

-- to the romance industry's realizing that sexy romance was here to stay, and the brilliant creativity of the late editor Kate Duffy in creating Kensington's Brava line.

-- to my own realization that something fascinating was happening in those books in the supermarkets, and my crossing the aisle to find out what was going on -- culminating in my early erotic romances, Almost a Gentleman and The Bookseller's Daughter (published, I'm proud to say, by Brava).

All of which, I hope, was in the service of showing how this complicated, conflicted, fascinating history, so full of energy, passion, and honest self-scrutiny, is the basis for a serious attention to craft. Because this was, finally and emphatically a craft workshop -- embodying my deepest experience and cherished belief that voice and craft originate in self-understanding.

Originate, but of course, don't end there. Because as for the specifics of embodying physicality and emotion, time and space, all in those little abstract black marks on white paper... well, that was the body, if you will, of that talk. But that's too long for a blog post.

There is a tiny little reading list from the talk posted on my Passions and Provocations blog, but mostly, I hope to give the workshop again, and hope to see you there when I do.

And I'd love to hear your thoughts, as a reader and a writer, of the fascinating decades we've come through.

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Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I’m a jill-come-lately to romance (grew up on historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy). I still remember buying Pam’s The Bookseller’s Daughter long before I ever wrote a romance or met Pam. It caught my eye in the fiction section. It had a pretty cover . It looked like a great historical novel. I was hooked by the romance though, LOL! Took me a while to actually enter the “pink aisle” at my local bookshop and explore the books there (but Heyer and Rosenthal had made me believe that there just might be something down that aisle that I wanted).

I must admit though, I can’t go back and read the bodice rippers that I missed in my youth. They just don’t work for me, and I’m not sure they ever world have worked for me. I do remember reading Lindsey’s Fires of Winter when I was sixteen, and it turned me off even trying another romance for a full decade (rape her till she admits she likes it is simply not one of my kinks).

2:47 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Heyer and Rosenthal. Oh, I like that, Isobel.

And I'm not sure I'd like to read a lot of bodice-rippers either. But I do think that, crude as it was, the subgenre began a conversation in the romance world about sexuality and its complexities that goes on today. And I'm fascinated that a parallel discussion was happening among feminists at the same time.

8:18 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fabulous, thought-provoking post, Pam! Like Isobel, I found historical romances because I was looking for historically set books. When I first started reading them I was don't think I even quite knew there was a romance genre, I just thought of them as historical novels (and once I got past a preteen fascination with the sex scenes, it was the history more than the love scenes that intrigued me). As a writer I've gone from writing very chase genre Regencies (my friends used to tease me that my first book barely had a kiss and the stories got progressively more explicit from there on) to enjoying the challenge of writing sex scenes, to writing historical suspense fiction and being very happy to fade to black.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Writing historical sex scenes is just so strange and hard. Especially when I'm in the heroine's POV and I need to have her thinking in terms of the names of body parts. *sigh* The heroine of Ripe for Pleasure is a courtesan, so I felt ok using "clitoris" (it's a period word, after all). The heroine of my WIP is a virginal daughter of the ton. It's driving me bonkers. I think heroine #1 (SIL of heroine #2) might have to have "the talk" with her and free my vocabulary.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard on sex scenes was not to actually name body parts, which in general I think works very well. But I think having the heroine from the prior book talk to your heroine is a great idea!

10:26 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I've no idea how to write an erotic sex scene without naming at least a few key body parts (or using purple euphemisms, which I'd rather avoid). I try to make the sexual vocabulary suit the character, which is the best I've come up with.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I know it seems odd, but I've found it's amazing what one can convey with a well-chosen verb. Totally agree having the vocabulary suit the character is key!

12:17 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love the idea of the book 1 heroine talking to the book 2 heroine, Isobel.

As for body parts -- well, it's my experience that you have to go light on the obviously sexual ones, so as not to be too... well, obvious. But you get huge intimacy points if you can convince your reader that your character very some more everyday part.

Purple euphemisms never work, imo -- I hate heroes who have come equipped with various kinds of sticks and shafts attached to their bodies.

But fetishizing real objects like, say, walking sticks (esp in a historical) works extraordinarily well.

A key point of my workshop, I guess, is that physical arousal and linguistic expression aren't opposites, and can work really interestingly together. Only it takes work. And thought. And daring.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Over the years I have amassed a modest sized library of 18th and 19th c. erotica, so it's always interesting to me what words were used for various body parts and activities back then (I mean, who uses the term "gamahuche" anymore?) and to compare that to the vocabulary that contemporary authors use to write period-set erotica. There are some 20th c. volumes in my collection as well (including "The Story of O"), but the end of the novel has always disturbed me tremendously. In fact I have never found that book remotely empowering for women because of the violence. The whippings are particularly brutal, and O's shameful desire for them, or her feeling that she deserves them, has always angered me.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Well, I can't argue with that, Leslie. But I always, even at 21, read it somewhat differently. But -- if you have any curiosity about my take -- it's at

9:05 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And thanks too, to Leslie for pointing out Story of O's general unpalatableness, in parallel to Isobel's comment about the bodice rippers. My argument is, in fact, that both within and without romance, it was during the first decade or so of Second Wave feminism that women were encountering fictions of extreme sexuality. Not stuff you actually wanted to do, but portrayals of states of mind. Or to quote from another of my workshop slides, from Sallie Tisdale's very helpful book Talk Dirty to Me:

"There is one specific element to many fantasies that might be called a kind of dominance but isn't dominance as we usually define it. I mean the dream of being dominated by sex itself -- being forced, as it were, by the intensity of the sex to submit to and accept sex, be bound by sex, mastered by sex."

It's my argument that the bodice rippers were the sexual radical fringe of romance, and that they were read as such by a wide general audience, even as books like Story of O were read and digested by a sexual radical fringe of feminism, as extreme starting points (after baleful, male-dominated normative Freudianism) for a woman-centered inquiry into sexuality.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Miranda Neville said...

Hi Pam. I loved your talk in New Jersey and I'm so glad you've brought the discussion here.

I missed out on the bodice ripper era, but I've read a few since and I think they had a certain over-the-top exuberance that present-day romance writers have lost. I kind of like the crazy POV swings, for example. The limited hero POV makes it much easier to write total alphas and to fool both the reader and the heroine.

Like Leslie I was appalled by The Story of O (also fascinated) and wanted all those men to be arrested. I understood the book much better after I read Carrie's Story.

In the book I've just finished I have my heroine read a pornographic novel and learn some useful (and very funny) vocabulary. I used a 1796 book I found in the British Library. I could not have made that stuff up.

12:17 PM  

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