Part I: I Love My Dead Gay Husband
There’s been a big dust-up about “women’s fiction” since, oh, about the time women started writing. In recent years, though, the name-calling has solidified around two genres: chick-lit and romance. Jennifer Weiner has a couple of great blog entries about this sexist, hypocritical bullshit if you want to read on and get thoroughly pissed at The Man. I mention the whole thing not because I have anything new or interesting to add to that conversation, but because I’m about to bash romance, old school and hardcore. I don’t want anyone to take this post as a sign that I believe women who write romance suck, or are innately and incurably anti-feminist, or aren’t “real” writers. I don’t think that you have to write a stolid, ”artistic” novel in order to be a “true” author: personally, I’m a cross-genre reader, so I’m just as likely to read Marian Keyes, Eloisa James, or Diana Wynne-Jones as I am to pick up a copy of The Great Gatsby. I have strong opinions about particular writers, but I rarely categorically refuse to read a book because it’s in a genre I don’t normally read or because it’s by a male author or something like that. In a world full of picky eaters, literarily speaking, I’m omnivorous. So rest assured, my take-down of romance isn’t because I think the genre’s worthless. It’s just because clichés are really easy to make fun of.
And we all know I go for the cheap joke whenever possible.
So with that out of the way, these are things I’d like to see much, much less of in the world of historical romance:
The Nitwitted Heroine
Okay, romance is largely a wish-fulfillment fantasy: you’re beautiful and rich (or at least end up that way) and you’re married to a handsome, brooding man who loves only you. I have no problem with this. In fact, I enjoy the hell out of it. But it kind of pulls me out of the fantasy if the person I’m supposed to be identifying with (that is, the heroine) is a total fucking moron. Now, it’s not like every romance novel protagonist is dumb as a rock, but all too often, authors stick us with the Nitwitted Heroine. The Nitwit isn’t just garden-variety dense, either: you will know her by her characteristic misplaced sense of honor and her complete lack of self-preservation. She is the sort of character who refuses to marry her One True Love because she’s convinced (often on absolutely no evidence) that he doesn’t really love her but just wants…her money? Her social standing? To assuage his sense of honor because he knocked her up? It’s almost always one of the three. And if she thinks she might be preggo, her reaction is invariably, “Oh, I can’t drag down a good man like that–I can’t make him marry me just because he compromised me and now I might be carrying his child! That would be WRONG!” It never seems to occur to the Nitwit that she lives during a time in which being a bastard was an almost insurmountable social stigma; how, exactly, is it “honorable” to condemn your child to life as a second-class citizen? Also, being an unwed mother gave every man on earth express permission to “take liberties” with your lady bits. Turning down that extremely timely marriage proposal isn’t noble: it’s just dumb. Ugh.
The Convenient Miscarriage
In the Nitwitted Heroine’s defense, however, sometimes her One True Love really does have absolutely no interest in marrying her for her own sake: he just feels obligated because she’s a Lady of Quality and he’s Compromised Her Virtue. By which we mean, “he done knocked her up” (or thinks he might have, anyway). Now, in cases where there really is a baby on the way, said infant rarely actually arrives. After all, Nitwit Jr. isn’t really a character unto itself; actually, it’s more of a plot device that exists only to bring the romantic leads together. And because this is a romance novel and not a mommy blog, that bonding cannot be achieved by changing dirty diapers together; the kid totally has to kick it.
Yeah, I know. Because grief has a great real-world track record of uniting two people who have nothing in common apart from their interlocking genitals. ANYWAY. In addition to being innately lame, this plot device has been overused to the point that every time an unmarried heroine misses her period, I know she’ll fall from a horse or tumble down a flight of stairs within a hundred pages.
In either case, problem solved! On with the narrative!
The Dead Gay Husband
The romance genre as a whole is predicated on one simple principal: soulmates. In the world according to romance authors, there’s only one person for you, ever. EVER. There are many, many problems with this outlook on life, but the one that’s most pertinent to this discussion is this: the market can only support so many books about innocent virgins before everyone pukes and switches to chick-lit. Eventually, somebody’s going to have to write about a widow. But how to get around the terrifying prospect that the widow actually might have…loved her husband? You could, of course, sidestep the issue by making the dreaded ex an abusive fucktard (see The Sexual Deviant for more details). But then you’ll have to waste precious time on the heroine’s resulting PTSD, and that would significantly decrease the number of sex scenes you could include. The Solution Is Clear: make the heroine’s first husband gay. Not like, flamboyantly gay–just a quiet, tortured gay. The kind of gay that sneaks off to whorehouses and has sex with suspiciously young men. That sort of gay. The heroine will have loved him, and he will have loved her–but they could never truly be together, for their love! It was not sexual!
It is only with the hero that the heroine may finally experience the Full and Sweaty Expression of Pelvic Ecstasy!
See? This shit practically writes itself!
The Sexual Deviant
Now, I admit that this is where things get seriously sketchy, as far as hateful stereotypes within fiction go. The Dead Gay Husband is awful, but at least with him you know that the author was trying to be “hip” and “progressive” and just failed miserably at it. That sucks, but it’s not as though writers are actively trying to portray the Dead Gay Husband as a freak and a pervert; they just do it by accident.
The same cannot be said of the Sexual Deviant, a character whose existence seems to be firmly rooted in the belief that evil people like to fuck everything in sight, including inanimate objects and small children. Now don’t get me wrong: if you want to make your heroine deliciously tortured because her first husband was (unbeknownst to her) a pedophile, then fine. But if you want to make your heroine deliciously tortured because her first husband was a pedophile, a murderer, and bisexual or polyamorous–what the fuck is that? It’s equating non-heteronormative sexual practices with deviance and evil, that’s what that is. Way to live in the twenty-first century, people. While you’re at it, why not write about some cheerful slaves and some rape victims who were “asking for it”?
Okay, I’ll cop to it: this isn’t a romance novel issue–it’s a problem in quote-unquote “literary fiction.” Incest, the original oogy-oogy sin, is making a serious comeback in more “literary” circles these days. It’s a central plot point in critical darlings Middlesex and Emotionally Weird, and it figures largely in The Thirteenth Tale, The Secret History, and Joanne Harris’ almost-forgotten early-nineties novel Sleep, Pale Sister. I haven’t really noticed it in genre fiction so much–except maybe Fantasy, but let’s not even go there–but apparently the “intellectual elite” love. It.
Makes the term “intellectual masturbation” that much creepier, doesn’t it?
Anyway, all I have to say is: get over it, guys. I will forgive the incest in Middlesex because Eugenides never gives the impression that he wants to shock or disgust me, but the rest of you? You totally want to gross me out. Well, congratulations, you did–but I’m totally on to you. Having siblings fuck is the literary equivalent of shoving a dead frog in my face: are you a five-year-old boy? Do you have a crush on me? Was punching me in the arm just not violent enough to express the intensity of your pre-adolescent passion? God! Just make me a valentine next time, okay?
Oh, and while we’re talking about bullshit literary devices, Incest Amongst the Upper Classes is an even more annoying subset of just plain old Incest. Look guys, I get it: rich people are all inbred because siblings boink and then hide the baby in plain sight as a new “sister.” See that? That right there? That, or something similar, has happened in two books that I’ve read in the last three years!
This plot device is fired.
Orgasming Through Penetration Alone
Guys, I took Women’s Health: for most women, this just does not happen on a regular basis, if at all. It’s not because they “haven’t found the right man”; it’s because it’s often physically impossible. So please stop writing this–in some states, romance novels are what passes for sex ed. Think of the children who will one day grow up to be disillusioned, sexually frustrated adults if you keep writing this shit. Do you really want them killing you in a fit of post-coital rage? I didn’t think so.
The Brooding and Damaged Anti-Hero
I’m all for brooding and damaged anti-heroes, because let’s be honest: they’re an awesome fantasy. The idea that you can create or destroy a good man through the power of your love? Who doesn’t get off on that shit? It’s like playing God on a very manageable scale! What annoys me about them isn’t that they’re unrealistic–who cares about realism at a time like this?–but that the reason for the hero’s damage is so often that a woman Done Him Wrong. Either his first wife was a total whore, or his mother was cold and withholding. Oh, and his father beat him.
All I have to say about that is: look, these are books by and for women, so what’s with the undercurrent of internalized misogyny? You don’t have to build up your heroine by tearing another woman down, ladies. No, really. You don’t. So stop it right quick.
The Pathetic Attempt at a Plot
My beloved Erika once said this of romance novelist Catherine Coulter: “Her books are very good, except for the parts where she gets confused and thinks that she needs to have a plot.” To which my mother added: “And it’s always got to be a mystery.”
Romance novelists in general have this inferiority complex that makes them they think they’ve got to justify all the sex and brooding with…a hunt for a murderer? Or a lost inheritance? Or an involvement with some kind of historical event? Seriously, I have read romance novels with footnotes (which was just the height of desperation, honestly). Look, a romance novel is supposed to about a man and a woman and their romantic relationship with one another. That’s why people are reading it. They do not care about the craptastic villain you’ve concocted (usually The Sexual Deviant), or about the Battle of Waterloo. They just don’t. I’m sorry, I really am. I know that you spent years researching the Napoleonic Wars and months creating that terribly original character, but that’s not why people are reading your book. They are reading your book because they want to see two people fall in love. So make two people fall in love already.
…just not on the field at Waterloo. Give it up, okay?
The Totally Gratuitous Epilogue with the Baby in It
I don’t actually have a problem with this: honestly, I think it’s sweet. I mean, I like babies–I usually like them better when they’re far away, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, I have no real issue with this cliché, but it cracks me up because almost every single historical romance novel ends with it. Even if the novel featured a sadomasochistic couple on the run from a cross-dressing brothel-owner and his drug runner friends, the book would still end with the line, “Two years later, in a sunlit room, a baby’s chortle could be heard from [insert hero's name] Jr. as his parents stared at him (and each other) adoringly.” It’s so completely incongruous, you just gotta love it. Or run away screaming. Whichever.
Part II: I Love My Dead Gay Husband More
Not long after I finished writing “I Love My Dead Gay Husband,” I realized that I wasn’t done pantsing the romance community in front of the entire internet. Why not? Well, mostly because I’m mean. But also because when I really thought about it, I realized that I’d barely scratched the surface of the deep and abiding wtfery that pervades historical romance. There is SO MUCH there guys, and I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t call it to your attention. And so! I bring you “I Love My Dead Gay Husband More: or, Bigger, Longer, and More Deathier.”
When I first started writing this, I innocently typed one subject title: “Ethnic and racial stereotypes.” I began with the Gypsies, progressed to African Americans, and…just kept going. Guys, I’m not sure there’s really an end to this essay; I think at some point, I just got sick of writing it. I wanted to cover other hilarious parts of romance silliness, but I just…I just never got to the end of the category! Because the category does not end.
And so, without further ado, let us begin our endless, thankless task!
“Gypsy” is an ethnic slur that refers to a nomadic group called the Roma, who have traversed the European continent for centuries. The Romani people have a long and rich history and still exist to this day; they have also been persecuted throughout their history, and still face discrimination in much of Europe. “Classic” literature is rife with horrifying portrayals of the Roma that depict them as ”others” and highlight their supposed dishonesty. Oh, and there was that whole thing where Hitler TRIED TO EXTERMINATE THEM.
Given the amount of persecution that the Roma have faced, you’d think that the romance community would be sensitive in the way that they portray “Gypsies,” right? Right?
HAHAHAHAHAHA! God, your faith in humanity is tiresome.
Seriously, though, a gypsy character almost invariably fits the following criteria:
- Can see the future, or has a female relative who can see the future.
- Usually cheats non-Gypsy customers, but is so stunned/amazed/otherwise stupefied by a major character’s fortune that they are FORCED to tell the truth about it.
- Lives in a largely silent, seriously unfriendly-looking camp full of other gypsies.
- Is dark and swarthy–except, of course, when it’s the main character and she’s “part Gypsy” (and she’s always part). Then she’s mysteriously blond.
- The men wear “flowing white shirts.” They’re very violent.
- At some point, one of the Gypsy characters will announce that “We are not Gypsy; we are Rom!” If they don’t mention it, one of the main characters will, thus supposedly displaying how much they know about fringe cultures. And, by extension, how unprejudiced they are.
Okay, so let me get this straight: you’ve got a minority population that’s being represented as dark, swarthy, dishonest, magical, violent, and silent. Oh, and they’re often used as props to demonstrate a protagonist’s “open-mindedness.” HOW DOES THAT NOT BOTHER ANYONE?! Why hasn’t anyone DROPPED DEAD FROM SHAME YET?
Wait–I forgot. These are the same people who write romance novels set in The Antebellum South. Shame? What is this “shame” you speak of?
Modern Americans have a love-hate relationship with all things French. On the one hand, we dislike their pompousness; on the other hand, we enjoy their sophistication and their cheese. We despise their intellectualism and their insufferable snootiness, but we really like the idea of a chocolate croissant. Basically, despite their reputation for elitism and effeteness, they are also known for having really good food, a pretty language, and–in a slight contradiction, since we think they’re kinda gay–an ironclad reputation for romance. Your typical American-born romance novelist downplays the ”bad” parts of the French reputation and focuses instead on the one part that’s going to sell slutty books: l’amour. Therefore, in a romance novel, everything that’s French is automatically sexy and sophisticated–which means that authors will throw in as much French crap as they can get away with. This has led to entire conversations being written–with no translation provided–in French; a language that I (and the vast majority of the novel’s American audience) do not read. Authors think this adds a touch of sophistication–maybe even of scholarship!–to their works, but I personally think it just adds a touch of hilariosity. Or, as they say in France, l’hilariosity.
Why? Well, consider the following. Much like a Gypsy character, a French character can be reduced to a bulleted list:
- Even the virgins know everything there is to know about intercourse. And they’re very cynical about what they’ve never had, too.
- Replies, “So very English of you!” every time one of the British characters says something prudish about sex.
- Has a cavalier attitude towards promiscuity, their own or otherwise.
- Usually, French males are more fashionably attired than their British counterparts. Romance novelists tend to feel the need to inform us, their readers, that despite this innate smooveness, Frenchmen are still quite “masculine.” Such assurances are properly translated as, “They’re NOT GAY, NOT GAY AT ALL.”
- French women are prone to spontaneous ejaculations of random, nonsense-sounding words, such as “La!” or “N’est pas!” French men are rarely so annoying.
Given these characteristics and the romance novelist’s innate propensity for gratuitious French, most dialogue from a French female character ends up looking something like this: “La! So very English of you! La morsure d’une fourmi de cette espèce crée une douleur aussi forte que celle d’une guêpe mais moins longue. But you English, you would not know that! Perhaps if you were not so repressed, things would be different, n’est pas?”
…I took most of the French from a science article on Wikipedia. I think it was about bugs. Tres romantique!
The Antebellum South
I have read only two romance novels set in the Antebellum South, and that’s if you count Gone With the Wind. This probably means that I am not actually qualified to critique the subgenre, but it’s not like that’s ever stopped me before. Anyway. I read both Gone with the Wind and the other book (whose name I have long since forgotten) when I was in my early teens; I very quickly decided that no matter how many sex scenes there were in the unnamed novel (trust me, I was only reading romance novels for the sex scenes at that point), I would never pick up another romance about the old South. Because there is just something inherently gross about a slave character whose main goal is the health and happiness of her white mistress, okay?
And there’s also just something inherently gross about fantasizing about the Antebellum South, period. Now, I know every time has its problems and you’re not going to find an era in which someone wasn’t being horribly exploited, but…y’all, the old South was well and truly fucked. You’re talking about a time during which people were held as chattel, women–whether slave or free–had almost no rights, and violence was considered the solution to pretty much every problem. Ladies, you might daydream about being a plantation mistress and floating around smelling gardenias and wearing hoop skirts, but the reality was that no matter how rich you were, you’d probably spend most of your days beating your slaves and boiling your own laundry. And your husband, the Senator, would spend most of his time trying to defend the “peculiar institution” against abolitionists…or caning other Senators on the floor of Congress. You know, whichever. Plus, have you ever tried to get busy in the middle of the summer in Louisiana–with no air conditioning? Yeah, me neither, but that’s only because I have no desire to get welded to my partner.
…guys, I’m an amateur history buff, and in my completely unprofessional opinion, I would rather have lived during the Middle Ages–bubonic plague and all.
I have two words for you: Och! Aye! Also: Haggis! Red-headed! Bad-tempered! Damn the English!
I think I’ve said enough.
Anyway, the Irish have much better accents. THEY DO.
Stupendously Servile Servants
Basically, you take a valet, a butler, or a housekeeper–pretty much any “upper servant”–and write them so that they are very “humorously” convinced of their own consequence. Because it’s totally hilarious when people manage to find some kind of dignity in a job that forces them to subsume their own needs and desires for the sake of the idle rich!
Guys, we could play a wicked awesome drinking game with this! The nurse who’s more interested in bloodlines than her aristocratic charges, the butler who has more dignity than his employers–these characters are easy to spot. So every time you find one, take a shot! And when you’re drunk enough (which should be relatively soon), run up and down the street screaming about the rise of the proletariat! We’ll call it “Communist Manifesto,” and it’ll be AWESOME!
Who’s with me?!
(…I had you guys at “let’s get shitfaced,” didn’t I?)
Vague and Incomprehensible Dialect
Georgette Heyer started this, rot her soul. She was very fond of taking a “colorful” older character and shoving Yorkshire into his or her mouth. She thought the result was funny–and maybe it was, seventy years ago–but now it’s just kind of puzzling. “What the fuck is this random collection of vowels?” I always wonder whenever I bust out a copy of The Unknown Ajax or The Grand Sophie or whatnot. I try to overlook it, but it’s hard: Heyer apparently found lower-class country dialects very funny, because they pop up several times in almost all of her books. To my everlasting pain and frustration.
The use of country dialect seems to have died out in the last few decades, mostly because the vast majority of historical authors are now Americans, who (as a rule) don’t know Yorkshire from Scotland. Or Sussex, for that matter. In any case, they don’t do the regional English accents so much anymore: instead, they’re deeply fond of Scottish or Cockney speech. Much comedy results from a little child saying “Right, guvnor!” or a spirited Scottish lass saying “Och! Aye!” when she offers the hero some haggis. Or at least, so I’m told. I usually skip those parts in favor of something that’s actually funny, so I wouldn’t know from personal experience.
It’s not just the lower orders who are the butt of this alleged “humor,” however. Even the upper classes aren’t immune from having their linguistic foibles painstakingly transcribed and then inflicted on my unwilling eyeballs. ”Pon rep!” and “La!” are popular spontaneous exclamations, and I hate them. I hate them with every fiber of my being. I don’t care if they are indicative of period accuracy–I will get indicative of period accuracy on your ass if we don’t retire that cant.
I don’t even know what that threat means, but rest assured that I will CARRY IT OUT.
The Non-white Heroine Who Is Not, In Fact, Non-white
Ahem. On to less violent subjects. Nonwhite heroines don’t pop up very often in historical romances–and in the genre’s defense, it’s not as if there were very many aristocratic black women in Regency England. But I can’t say that I think this has very much to do with historical accuracy. Because while main characters or love interests may occasionally be somehow “other,” they never actually have non-white racial characteristics. I read an old Loretta Chase where the heroine was part Indian; she certainly didn’t “look it.” I’ve read a book where the Gypsy heroine was actually only half-gypsy, and a blond to boot. More common is the male protagonist who has spent time living with the Native Americans/in India/in China/with the gypsies. Usually, this guy spends much of the book talking about the customs of the people he’s hung out with, and casually mentioning the fact that they accepted him as one of their own. “Or,” he’ll say modestly, “as much as they’ll ever accept an outsider.”
I am so sure.
In case you weren’t aware, this is a copout, guys. Basically, you want “a touch of the exotic,” not an actual, honest-to-God non-Western perspective. You’re fetishizing difference, not exploring it. Racial or ethnic difference becomes a kink for the reader, not, you know, just part of the characterization of the hero or heroine. This is not okay, guys. This is very, very, very deeply not okay.
If your main character is a gypsy, then make her a fucking gypsy and leave it at that. None of this atypically blond-haired and blue-eyed bullshit. Because I can guarantee you that if you go that route, you will not end up with a Caucausia-esque exploration of race; you’ll just end up with some shitty novel where the heroine has a little “color” to add “spice” to an otherwise boring narrative. And guess what? That’s bullshit. Actually, let’s be honest: that’s racist, kids.
Knock it the fuck off. Don’t make me nonspecifically threaten you again!
…is not really the end, honestly. There’s so much more that we could cover! Good versus evil! Light versus dark! Blond versus brunette! And my personal favorite, the grudge match of every century: virgin versus whore!
We haven’t even touched on the portrayal of the mentally ill, or revisted our old friend, The Dead Gay Husband! No one’s seen a ghost, become like a mother to the hero’s orphaned children, or developed PTSD during the Peninsular war yet! But these things will have to wait until another day, another time, another trashy romance novel binge! Until then, I bid you adieu, and remind you that as always, Julia Quinn can suck it!