landscape

Text of a talk for romance readers, given in Portland, Oregon.


    Did you know chocolate is really, really good for you? One study in Germany found that serious chocolate eaters -- and here we're talking people who eat between a quarter pound and a pound a day of plain dark chocolate. Serious chocolate eaters! -- are energetic, high achievers and never overweight.
    As the article said -- If the government wakes up to this stuff, they'll try to make it illegal!
    Which brings me to romance novels. Perhaps it's as well that they're ignored. If the government knew how great they are for us, they'd probably try to make them illegal.
    And not just for the sex. But boy, it surprises me how many people assume that books written by women, for women have to be coy about the sex.
    Where did people and its mostly men -- get the idea that women are coy about, or even scared of, sex? That their wives and mothers are coy about or scared of sex? Probably from the same place that they got the idea that woman have no appreciation for the beautiful male form.
    Sure, we enjoy Wolverine, Legolas, and Spike for their minds alone.
    They wish!
    No wonder so many men seem so confused about women.
    Most writers are scared of writing about sex, especially healthy, enjoyable sex. They will explain it by saying that everyone knows about that sort of sex. That there's no need to go into detail.
    I find that very peculiar.
    Even healthy, enjoyable sex isn't the same every time. Even with the same partner, sometimes it's sublime and sometimes it's just okay, and then, of course, there are the times it just doesn't work.
    But add to that, the sex scenes in books generally include that crucial first one between the two characters. Virgins or not, that has to be a special encounter involving all kinds of exploration, adjustment, and character growth, not to mention the distinct possibility that it won't work out well first time around. That scene is crucial to the relationship and fascinating to the reader. Why on earth think there's nothing to write about?
    But most writers outside our genre run away from explicit sex scenes unless they involve violence or the bizarre. Then, for some reason, they're okay. It's very peculiar.
    Never having read a romance novel doesn't stop people assuming they know everything about them, and the errors are amusing. Some people think they are nothing but sex scenes, quite possibly rapes. Others think they're candy floss fiction that stops at a blushing, hesitant kiss.
    A few years back Peter Gzowski was interviewing a romance novelist. The talk got around to sex in the books and it went something like this.
    "You mean they do it in the books?" Peter asked.
    "Yes," said the novelist.
    "I mean, you describe it -- them doing it in the books."
    "Yes, Peter," the novelist said.
    "In detail?"
    "Sometimes, yes, Peter."
    After a second of silence. "Holy cow!"
    Even I once fell into the "women are coy about sex" fallacy.
    My first novels were traditional regencies. No sex. I've always disliked fade out sex scenes -- you know, when they kiss and make out a bit and then disappear into those little dots? So, my couples didn't make love in the books. The books ended before marriage.
    But then I moved into the sexier books and I began to worry about my fans. I didn't have that many fan letters back then, but some of them were clearly from elderly ladies. I worried that such readers might suffer a heart attack when they came across Aimery and Madeleine shaking the castle walls in a storeroom.
    So I wrote and warned them.
    I remember one reply, on lovely note paper in elegant handwriting. "I'm looking forward to it," she wrote. "I might be eighty, but I'm not dead yet!"
    I don't want to keep getting at men here, but the sexes clearly are different, in regards to sex above all. It does seem to me that when most male novelists try to write a sex scene, they reach for metaphor as a way of distancing themselves.
    There's an award called The Bad Sex in Fiction Award. I am not, as Dave Barry says, making this up. Last year's winner, from a book called Rescue Me by Christopher Hart, took flight on images of polar exploration.
    Here it is with some incidentals edited out.
    "Her hand is moving away from my knee and heading north. Heading unnervingly and with steely will toward the pole. Ever northward moves her hand, and when she reaches the north pole I think in wonder and horror, "Oh, she will surely want to pitch her tent."
    The year before, Sean Thomas won for this bit from his novel Kissing England. "She is so small and compact, and yet she has all the necessary features. Shall I compare thee to a Sony Walkman...."
    Honestly, I am not making these up. I assume that polar exploration and micro technology are less scary than live humans, touch, and sweat.
    But I didn't come here to talk about sex -- really! I want to talk about chocolate and romance novels, and why they are both sinfully delicious.
    A good romance novel is like real chocolate -- little bit sweet, a little bit dark, rich, sensuous, and completely delicious, and we are all very fortunate, blessed, really, to be readers, to be able to enjoy them.
    Sadly, too many people today seem to have lost the ability to really read. Many can't absorb the words of fiction, and of those who can, many feel that fiction has to be worthy in some way or it's a waste of time. They believe that they should come away from fiction with new information, or deep thoughts about life, or at least with the mental sweat of having struggled with something difficult, depressing or both.
    Do you know that alcohol generally stops premature labor? If a woman is having contractions too early the classic way to stop them is to give her a drink or two. Now we know alcohol is not good for the baby, but neither is coming into the world too soon.
    It's possible that technology has found some other way by now, but back a while -- and I'm not making this up -- the preferred technique was to feed alcohol into the woman's bloodstream through an IV. After all, we couldn't have her just sitting there in her hospital bed sipping a margarita, could we?
    Some people clearly feel the same way about novels. We can't have people simply reading fiction and enjoying it, can we?
    The peculiar thing is that we don't accept the same cold restrictions on our other pleasures.
    What would a newspaper look like if the food pages could never talk about desserts? If the music pages couldn't talk about folk or rock? If the only movies reviewed were the art films?
    Yet the media stubbornly ignores most popular fiction. Mystery has gained some acceptance. Science Fiction less. Fantasy even less, except, of course, for that pesky Harry Potter, who refuses to know his place. And romance.... Well, that carries girl cooties. The pages would probably turn pink!
    Amazing that the genre survives at all.
    Not really. 55% of all paperback sales are romance novels. Romances are a third more popular than mysteries and five times more popular than science fiction and fantasy. Over 2000 romance novels are published a year in North America for the reading pleasure of over 52 million readers.Check the facts here.
    It's a shame, however, that so many people in the media and academia seem to make it their crusade to make these readers feel ashamed of enjoying their literary dessert.
    There will always be some readers who don't like popular fiction, and that's okay. Some people don't like chocolate, or caviare, or port. It's not a sin against some great literary goddess to enjoy a fun book, however.
    What exactly is the problem here? Why does popular fiction, but especially romance novels, stir fear and loathing in some quarters?
     Some readers are terrified of unreality. Their fiction has to be real.
     We all know that makes no sense. Fiction means "we made it up, folks," but for a lot of readers, the more real it seems, the more comfortable they feel. If they can believe that the author is writing about herself, about her community, is sharing information about her family and friends, well, then, it's not so scary, is it?
    Not like the other extreme -- dragons, elves, magic, and Hogwarts.
    Go into a book like that and a person could get lost. They'd end up not knowing what was real and what wasn't. They'd lose touch with their real lives. They'd end up on the streets, pushing a shopping cart full of read-to-death books, all of them stories of things that aren't real....
    Isn't that sad? Not to be able to open a book and enter an imaginary world. To be afraid to live a story as if it were, for the moment, real. Not to be able to surrender to a story far more deeply than anyone can when watching a screen.
    Sure, the screen is safer.
    Much safer.
    Even the biggest screen with surround sound is not as powerful as a book. In a book, the story unrolls in our mind. It takes up existence there, alongside our reality. There, inside us, we get to experience other people's reality, thoughts, and emotions.
    We feel the wind tug at our clothing, the rain blow in our face, the sun warm our skin. We breath in the perfume of a rose or the sharp catch of smoldering wood, or the stink of a medieval midden. We taste bread with a mouth that hasn't eaten for two days, or a medieval dish of meats, fruits, and spices, or the salty sweat on a lover's skin.
    We're there.
    Because it's in our head rather than in front of our eyes, in the process of reading we create an alternate universe, and if the author is good enough, it is as real to us then as our own world. More real than a dream, for who can remember dreams?
    This is an explanation, I think.
    As I understand it, the reason we can rarely remember dreams well is that they take place in a part of our brain that is cut off from the verbal/speech center. The brain is like that, very compartmentalized, with connections woven between.
    This is why brain injuries and stroke can have peculiar effects. One woman can write what she cannot say. Put an apple in front of her and ask her what it is and she cannot say the word, even though she has speech. She can talk but not to answer a visual question. A connection there is lost.
    She can, however, write the answer without any trouble.
    So, with most of us, when we dream, perhaps vividly, it is in a place wholly or mostly disconnected from our speech center. When we try to tell the vivid dream to someone else, it evaporates on our tongue and only the lamest phrases come out.
    It's true, isn't it?
    However, for many people it is easier to write them down -- different pathway, you see. And they say that if we write down our dreams immediately on waking we will get better and better at it.
    Especially in childhood, but all through our lives, the brain can build new links and it works on the familiar system -- use it, or lose it.
    Too many people today seem to lack the neural pathways for creating imaginary worlds, even with the help of an author. They read the words of a novel, but the words are just words, not a code for magic.
    And it is, magic, isn't it, this mystery we share? Novelists are sorcerers, especially those who write popular fiction, the extraordinarily imaginative branch of literature; the branch that wants the reader lost in the story not sitting back in comfortable self-awareness and analysis. We create worlds out of nothing. Our thoughts become real.
    Think about it.
    Before Tolkien created Middle Earth, it did not exist.
    Before JK Rowling created Hogwarts School, it did not exist. Not a scrap, not a hint, not a ghostly impression anywhere in the universe. And now, in how many minds does it have shape, texture, even smell? How many people can walk through its corridors and explore its mysteries, even without a book in front of them?
    These worlds have become real, entirely separate from the author, and that surely is magic.
    I used fantasy examples there because they are startlingly clear examples of something out of nothing. But the same thing happens with books set in the real world.
    Georgian England existed, but the Malloren family did not before I wrote about them.
    (I could argue the other side of that, since it always feels as if they exist before I find them, but I'll try to stay within the bounds of sanity here.)
    Certainly now, for many readers -- perhaps, judging by sales, for hundreds of thousands of readers -- the Marquess of Rothgar, the rest of the Mallorens and their world do exist.
    It's a kind of magic.
    It's also a treasure, isn't it? How sad to be stuck in mundane reality, to have only the one world in our heads, this one here. Of course it would be insane to go to the other extreme and live only in the imagination, but the combination is, in my opinion, a rich treasure.
    It is also without limit. Once we have this ability, this gift, each use strengthens and enriches it, and the brain is marvelously without limits. Our imaginations never run out of space. We don't have to worry about waking up one day and thinking, "Oh no, my brain's full! I can't read any more books!"
    This gift we have of reading is more than just an enrichment of our inner life, however. It is a powerful defense system. No one's life is perfectly stressless, or perfectly stimulating. With a good novel we can go somewhere else, and there's nothing wrong with that.
    People will sometimes sneer at escapist reading, but they don't sneer at escapist sports, or escapist tai chi, or even at escapist drinking unless the person is an alcoholic. There's nothing wrong with stepping aside from reality now and then.
    Women in particular often lack space. Virginia Woolf wrote of a woman writer's need of a room of her own, a concept that I doubt has troubled most male writers. When I read autobiographical material by male authors, I'm struck by the assumption of privacy in which to write, and generally an assumption that somebody -- usually a wife -- will handle life's distractions while they do the important stuff, which is to write.
    The distractions are the wife, the children, his and her family, neighbors, and mundane matters such as bills, doctors appointments, groceries, meals, laundry etc.
    In reverse, if the wife and mother is the writer, the husband is likely to assume that she will make sure the important stuff will be handled before she writes.
    The important stuff is, of course, the husband, the children, his and her family, neighbors, and mundane matters such as bills, doctors appointments, groceries, meals, laundry etc etc.
    The same problem often exists for readers.
    If women's writing is often seen as an indulgence, women's reading is even more so. And so it is, but what is wrong with an hour or two out of the day for sheer indulgence? Too often, however, women only feel allowed to read if the book is in some way "worthy."
    A woman can go out to an exercise class every day and be applauded, even if she goes because she enjoys it and the friendships there.
    If she happens to enjoy cooking, gardening, sewing or handicrafts then she may get approval. After all, it is theoretically of benefit to her family.
    Reading, though. Reading fiction. Reading Romance Novels...? Well, that's just selfish indulgence! It does nothing for anyone except herself.
    Go for it!
    Whether writers or readers, we are entitled to our chocolate -- real, and metaphorical. We are entitled to our enjoyment of our imaginary lives. It is a good and healthy thing to take time for ourselves, to resist the pressure to live constantly in the service of others, whether it's spouse, children, parents, siblings, colleagues, friends, neighbors, or the PTA.
    Twenty years ago or so, Janice Radway did her PhD research on romance readers, the first time anyone had looked seriously at the subject, and I understand she had to smash through some academic hostility to do it. What, after all, was worth studying about women who read trash? People still say things like that. Amazing.
    But she persisted, and observed and questioned a group of romance readers in Ohio. The book is dated in many ways, and Radway, though open minded, couldn't help bring some values baggage to it, but she revealed important information about the romance readers' relationships with the books and the world around them.
    The readers told her that one appeal of reading was that it created privacy for them and took them into a space of their own. These were mostly family women, and I think all of us who are or have been family women can understand that desire for privacy and space now and then.
    In the Radway study, the women's discovery of this luxurious private oasis within the family was proved by the active attempts of husbands, children and other family members to prevent them from going there.
    One reader said, "There's one way to get my husband talking to me. Pick up my book."
    Most women readers today recognize that phenomenen.
    One husband would insist that if he was watching a football game on TV his wife must put down her book and watch too, even though she didn't like football. I hope that today she'd not let him get away with that.
    Husbands, parents, and children would directly complain that the woman's reading was a selfish activity, that it was taking up time that belonged to the family. It didn't matter whether all the family work was done, because family work is never done.
    The house can be sparkling, the laundry clean and put away, the next day prepared for, the kids ferried here and there, helped with their homework and tucked away in bed, but by golly, if she has time, a proper wife and mother should be embroidering cushions, or putting up jam, or, if she has as much free time as that, go out and get a part time job!
    We can't have idle women sitting around the place filling their heads with fiction, with made-up-stuff, when they could be doing something useful with their time.
    But that was decades ago, and here we are in a new millennium....
    Things are better, yes, but such ideas still lurk, even in the minds of people who think they believe in sexual equality. It is still a struggle for too many women to believe that they have a right -- complete and unquestioned -- to part of their day for self-indulgence.
    Claim it. We must all acknowledge each woman's right to part of each twenty-four hours to do with as she damn well pleases. Time for herself, to indulge her imagination, her emotions and her chosen pleasures with not a scrap of insistence that whatever she does be worthy, improving, or useful to others.
    If she wishes, she can spend her time harvesting a medieval herb garden while hoping that her medicines won't be needed to dress the wounds of war.
    Galloping over prairies under a fierce sun, outwitting outlaws.
    Exchanging witty repartee at Almack's with an enigmatic duke and deciding whether he's worthy of her.
    Or she can march up to a man in black leather and give him a piece of our mind. Or willingly enter the lair of a vampire, seeking a dark and dangerous lover.
    She can travel to the stars, and back to times of myth and faery. Visit New York in 2058, pilot a plane that's hijacked by aliens, or explore the Liaden universe.
    She can hunt for murderers, save children, kick ass, heal with a touch, and kiss the man of her dreams, one after another, after another.....
     All while reading romance novels.
     Yes, Virginia, love exists and men and women can have healthy lives together. You only need to look around you to see the evidence. Romance novels carry the flame of this essential truth. They make up a rich and deep world of voices, a world of choices, with a story for almost everyone. And that's why romance is the most popular form of fiction today.

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