Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Annoying Sound of Ripping Fabric

A couple of weeks ago I took my children out to dinner and ran into a friend. When I excitedly told her that my first book was going to be released in about a week, she asked what kind of book and I replied, historical romance. Well you can guess where this is going, right? She replied something along the lines of, "Oh, one of those bodice ripper books."


Now this wasn't the first time I've had this reaction and Lord knows it won't be the last, but it always jellies me, and I never know quite what to say. As was the case in this instance, the speaker said it with no animosity or snarkiness, and I think she genuinely thought she was being nice in sharing my excitement. Not wanting to make her feel bad, I think I smiled and said something neutral and polite, giving no indication that I viewed her "bodice ripper" comment as in any way derogatory or as an inadvertent slam against the hundreds of hours I'd spent researching and writing said book.

First, I want to make a distinction. I grew up reading the classic, early romances and I am by no means trying to say that a comparison to those early books is inherently negative--in fact, I love the emotional, sweeping "old school" stories and alpha (note: not asshole) heroes. What has changed though, and I believe for the better, is our understanding of women's characterization in romance. Today's heroines are strong, independent, take charge gals. Rape or "forced seduction" as was common in the early romances is the exception, rather than the rule. What I am reacting to is the grouping--or should I say dismissing--of an entire category of books as nothing more than stories of gratitous sex and men ripping women's clothing off.

Here is what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:

"The covers of these novels tended to feature scantily clad women being grabbed by the hero, and caused the novels to be referred to as "bodice-rippers." A Wall Street Journal article in 1980 referred to these bodice rippers as "publishing's answer to the Big Mac: They are juicy, cheap, predictable, and devoured in stupifying quantities by legions of loyal fans." The term bodice-ripper is now considered offensive to many in the romance industry."

So what are we to do, how should I react, when a perjorative description like "bodice ripper" has entered the vernacular and seems by the world at large a perfectly acceptable way of referring to a genre. Should I have deadpanned that I actually don't have any ripped clothing in my books? Should I have tried to "educate" my friend about the fact that romance novels today are very different today than they were in the 70's? But that somehow seems wrong--I love some of those early books and don't want to disparage them to try to give legitimacy to what I do.

Frankly, I don't need the legitimacy. Not that it wouldn't be nice. But I'm very proud of the five (and 2/3!) books that's I've written and IMO anyone who has completed a novel is way beyond the countless multitude who think that they can write a book. It's a hard business folks, no matter what you write, but I think romance writers have an even more difficult job. After all, everyone already knows the ending--so you better do something special to keep people turning those pages.

I'm not sure I know the answer. Do we romance authors take stuff like this too personally? Do we, as Willie said, "protest too much?" Do our covers (and "clinch" covers in particular) contribute to the problem? I try not to get defensive and let the comments go, but then I wonder if my silence speaks acceptance.