Friday, May 15, 2009

Keep Your Hands Off My Bodice

by Sierra Donovan

When I tell people I write romance, the most common response is a knowing:

"Ah-hhh."

I can't duplicate the tone here, but you've probably heard it. Loosely translated, it seems to say, "Oh, you write those books."

You know. Bodice rippers.

As an Avalon author, I can add, "Squeaky clean romances." At that, the knowing look usually disappears. Often replaced by one of puzzlement. Because, to those who don't read them, what's a romance if no one's bodice is being ripped?

Whoever coined the term "bodice ripper" must have been pretty proud of himself (and I'd say it was almost certainly a "he"). I'll bet he wishes he had a quarter for every time someone's used the phrase. By now he'd probably be as rich as Rosemary Rogers.

At the time, the term had its place. There was certainly a spate of books in the 1970s that dealt with domineering heroes who, er, impatiently disrobed their leading ladies. Kathleen Woodiwiss' 1972 novel, The Flame and the Flower, is perhaps the archetype, featuring a heroine raped by the man she eventually falls in love with.

Those books aren't so common any more, but no matter. "Bodice ripper" is the lazy journalist's way of pigeonholing an author he or she has almost certainly never read, while sounding clever and cute. Meanwhile, that guy from the '70s is sitting somewhere, hunched over his adding machine, gnashing his teeth over the quarters that could have been his.

How do we fight this?

Do we fight it?

Authors of sweet romance can say something like, "Oh, my characters keep their bodices buttoned." Boldly sensuous authors could say, "My characters don't wear bodices. Or panties either, for that matter." Authors in between might try lines like, "My characters unlace their own bodices." Or, "My heroes unlace my heroine's bodice -- but they do it nicely, and never before page 200."

I Googled the term "bodice ripper" and came away with a heavy heart. The phrase is thrown around now as much as it ever was. Why does it bother me so much? Romances certainly don't lack for readers. In fact, statistics show that in this recession economy, romance sales are up. Clearly, the books are finding their audience. So why not laugh it off?

All disrobing aside, what gets me is the underlying assumption that romances, whatever you call them, are trite books full of laughable, overheated purple prose.
I guess what I want people to know, as always, is not to judge a book by the proverbial cover. To realize that there are intelligently written romances out there. I want to be judged for what my books are, not for what they aren't.

Like the disreputable duke in one of the overbaked Regencies of old, I still want respect.

14 comments:

Carol Hutchens said...

Hi Sierra!
Great post. Fun to read.
But...I think you must delay your validation as an author if you're waiting on public opinion.

I agree it doesn't make sense. We have doctors, lawyers, rocket scientists...well, scientists, writing romance...so why don't we get respect?

Could it be...is it possible...do you think authors bring this on themselves? Do we hide the fact that we're writing romance novels from those around us?

No? I didn't think so...then...call me confused! I'm with you on this...where's the respect?

Great post!

Heidi Ashworth said...

Very well written post, Sierra! I can so relate!

Jennifer Shirk said...

Ha! So true.
But whenever I tell someone I write romance, I get, "Oh, yeah? Is it racey?"
I say, "No."
And then their expression falls from disappointment. :)

You can't win I tell ya! LOL!

Cami Checketts said...

Thanks for the great comeback ideas!

Stephanie Newton said...

There's such a wide variety of romance out there. I'd go so far as to say a romance for every taste. And in the current economy when it seems like every other genre is shrinking, romance is doing fine. So I say let the uninformed call it whatever they want. They're the ones who come away looking like they don't know what they're talking about to those of us "in the know."

Stephanie Newton said...

I've gotten some looks, but yanno, I don't think it matters. Romance is doing well even in a stinky economy, so....I say let the uninformed call it whatever they want. We know the value of a good romance, and so do our readers.

Zelda Benjamin said...

I was part of a panel at the World of Erotic Art Museum on S. Bch and sold almost as many books as the author on the opposite end of the panel who writes Erotica.
My hero is a sexy NYC firefighter - I brought along some firefighter calendars to make my point. Avalon books can be sexy without writing in the sex scenes. No one disagreed.

Elisabeth Rose said...

I've had the bodice ripper query and the just as bad 'Isn't there a formula for that?'. Once someone at a dinner party I wasn't at, asked my friend who proudly announced I'd sold my first book, 'What sort of book?' When he said 'Romance' her response was 'Oh that's easy.'
Good thing I wasn't there!!

I.J. Parnham said...

Fun post. Thanks. As a western writer I'm aware of the theme here, but it doesn't concern me. The fans know what they like and anyone who has ever tried to write a genre work knows it's not that easy. So the moment any nay-sayer dismisses your work as being a bodice-ripper, or any other dismissive term, they are instantly proving they are ill-informed, and why should we seek validation from the ill-informed? Their lack of knowledge is their problem, not yours, and they prove it every time they pontificate on a subject they know nothing about.

Beate Boeker said...

. . . you know, I can't help but feeling that romances are being looked at askance because sometimes, the quality of writing is not very high. The choice among romances is wide . . . and they are distributed everywhere. Since there are so many, it's natural that the quality covers a broad range too. I know from personal experience that I ordered books with a fun description and found the content downright flat. But there's the other end, too. "Bridges on Madison County", for example. Beautiful writing . . . and a romance (without the proverbial happy ending, though).
If you want to criticize romances, you can say "I already know at the beginning what's going to happen. The hero and the heroine get together. How boring." To that, I answer: "The journey is the reward". It all depends how you get there.
But you're right. The stigma is there. I prepared myself for bad remarks by thinking up this reply: "Yes, I do write romances. So you'd better take care . . . I might use you as a model for my next villain." And then I laugh, inviting them to join in the joke.

Loretta C. Rogers said...

Sierra, I can truly relate. At a booksigning a lady said she didn't read bodice rippers. My reply was great, because I didn't write bodice rippers. Fun post. I enjoyed reading it.

Elisabeth Rose said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elisabeth Rose said...

It's a shame the term bodice ripper has been so devalued--I think it's a terrific phrase LOL very evocative and tells you exactly what you're getting. Same as those covers with a half naked lady in swirling robes clinging to the knees of a strong silent man equally half clad, although usually in leather boots, standing on a hilltop in a howling gale.

Sierra Donovan said...

Thanks so much for your thoughts, everyone! This is a hot button for me, though I'd probably be better off if I could chill out.

Beate, it does frustrate me that the quality of *some* romances isn't very high. It makes us an easy target. I know there's no short supply of books people can pluck off the shelves, read breathless passages from, and giggle.

(sigh)

(and no, my bosom wasn't heaving....)