There’s a huge hoo-ra (not Hoo Ha) going on right now about rape in romance, spurred by a book whose title I will not mention because I’ve never read it and neither, I think, have a lot of the people who are outraged by it. What they’re outraged by is the apparent imminent return of the rape romance. So outraged that they’re arguing that rape should be barred from romance fiction because it’s not romantic.
This is where I make my disclaimer: I hate rape romance. I also hate those romances where the hero is emotionally abusive to the heroine; those aren’t romantic, either. And I loathe baby romances; anybody who’s ever had a baby knows what a kid will do to romance. Also I don’t like badly written romances; I think people should learn to write well and publishers should only publish books with good writing. And while we’re on this, any romance novel that makes God more important that the romance story is not a romance, it’s an inspirational novel with a romance subplot, and I don’t like them, either. And you know that romance plot where the heroine fights another woman for the hero? Catfight novels. Hate those. And . . .
Where was I?
Right. The return of the rape romance. Not the best news I’ve had all week, but not the end of the genre, either. I heard about the book, heard from friends of mine who loathed it and friends of mine who loved it, and then I pretty much shrugged and moved on. Until people started saying, “Anything with rape in it should not be sold as a romance.” Then I came out to play because as much as I loathe the abusive hero-baby-hack-proselytizing-catfight novel—there’s a nightmare for you—I will defend to the end of my laptop battery the right of romance authors to write it. I don’t like that stuff, but that doesn’t mean that my personal squick meter gets to define romance.
The argument that everybody’s using is an old one: rape romances are a bad influence on romance readers. I find this inexplicable. Yes, of course our books influence readers, but I’m not seeing the Armageddon here. If romance readers read books in which the hero rapes, they’ll come to see rape as acceptable? How? Bob and I just finished a book in which the hero is a hitman. I don’t see anybody coming after us and saying, “You know, women will read that book and think that men who kill for a living will make great husbands.” How dumb do these people think romance readers are?
This is a cousin to that old paternalistic argument that romances are bad for women because they can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. What disturbs me is that so many romance writers are making it in the name of feminism. It’s not; it’s anti-feminist in that it assumes a child-like reader who absorbs whatever we put in front of her. I don’t think an argument can be more wrong.
First of all, the impact on readers will depend on two things: their own squick meters/fantasies and how well the book is written. To bar rape from romance is to bar a very common fantasy for women. (If “rape fantasy” makes you twitch, try “surrender fantasy” or “lack of responsibility fantasy” or “Alan Rickman Showed Up At My Front Door and Even Though I’m Happily Married With Two Kids He Ravished Me and There Was Nothing I Could Do About It fantasy.”) Very few women fantasize about being attacked in a parking garage by an overweight drug addict with a bad skin rash and an STD. It’s always somebody gorgeous who smells good: Russell Crowe/Brad Pitt/Daniel Craig/Sex Object of Your Choice Here. It is, in short, a fantasy, and women know that. They know that when they think about it, they know that when they play the game with their lovers, and they know that when they read a freaking novel.
The best comment on this one came from Susie Bright years ago. I’m paraphrasing here because I’m too lazy to go find the source, but she was playing games with a lover and suggested that he dominate her and force her. He was appalled and said he couldn’t possibly do that, that it was wrong. Bright pointed out that it was only wrong if she didn’t want it, if she asked him to do it, it was okay. In the same way, for us to say rape shouldn’t be part of the genre is essentially telling that reader that her fantasy is appalling, wrong, and doesn’t belong in the genre she loves. That’s a bias in the observer and has nothing to do with what happens between a reader and her book; she gets to read what she wants.
But the hell with the readers, I’m really upset about what it would do to writers. You’re telling me that if I put rape in a book, I’m not writing a romance? How do you know that? You haven’t read my book. The modern historical genre was founded on the rape romance, Kathleen Woodiwiss’s 1972 novel The Flame and the Flower. People can rant about the dangers of the rape romance all they want, but a novel that stays in print for thirty-five years is doing something right. I’ll confess I’m not a fan of that book, but Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold is one of the finest romances I’ve ever read, and reducing it to “a rape romance” because the hero rapes the heroine would be a travesty of narrow-mindedness and an insult to the author.
And what about all the novels with heroes who try to rape and are thwarted? Do they get a free pass just because something stops their heroes, even though their intent is clear? Vidal in Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub has every intention of raping Mary Challoner; the only reason he doesn’t is that she shoots him (read that excerpt here). Heyer leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind, Vidal intends to rape. And yet he’s a much-beloved hero (I must have read that book at least a dozen times and I plan to read it a dozen more in the future) precisely because he has so far to rise through the romance. He’s a rotter, but Mary’s going to reform him just by being Mary. And by shooting him. Georgette Heyer was my biggest influence as a beginning romance writer in large part because she never took the safe route, never did what was politically correct, always went her own way. But if the people who want rape out of romance are honest, that would include any hero who intends to rape, and there goes Vidal. I know I’ll never be as good a romance writer as Heyer or Gaffney, but give me the same clear playing field, please.
But in the end, all of the hoo-ra won’t matter because the readers will have the final say. Glen Turner from Queensland University of Technology, in his excellent paper delivered at the Pop Culture conference last week, pointed out that all the hand-wringing over what romance does to readers (he was referring to the abysmal Radway study and other critics who argued that romance novels were a bad influence on women) was pretty much backwards. Romance novels do not determine what readers think; readers determine what romance novels get published. Glen pointed out that the romance industry is more responsive to reader feedback than any other genre. Through reader boards and blogs, listserves and e-mails, and even snail mail, readers let publishers know what they think, but the biggest message they send is what they buy. Readers determine what a successful romance novel is, not writers with a political or moral agenda, and they do that by reading. The books they buy in stores, the books they check out of the library thereby encouraging the libraries to buy in great numbers, send a clear message in the only language publishing speaks: Sales.
So I’m annoyed by the people who want to make some topic off bounds for me as a romance writer; they should get their cotton-pickin’ hands off my genre. But I’m not worried about it. I know romance readers too well to think they’ll let anybody push them—or me–around. Although I might argue for some restrictions against the abusive hero-baby-hack-proselytizing-catfight novel. (I can’t help but think of titles, though: That Bitch Is Trying To Take The Secret Baby Some Arrogant Asshole Left Me With But God Is On My Side!!!! Hmmm. Needs to be pithier.) No, no, asking for restrictions would be wrong. My personal tastes do not define my genre, even if I feel passionately about them. Romance is bigger than me. And I’m really happy about that.